The true story of Vietnam War hero William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), a U.S. Air Force Pararescueman (also known as a PJ) who personally saved over sixty men. During a rescue mission on April 11, 1966, Pits (as he was called) willingly chose to leave the relative safety of his rescue helicopter to aid people on the ground when he saw how bad the situation below was. When others in his team declined to go, he put himself at risk to do more to help his fellow Americans. After saving many already, he was ordered to take the chance to escape on the last helicopter out of a combat zone heavily under fire, but he stayed behind to save and defend the lives of soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, before making the ultimate sacrifice in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Thirty-two years later, Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), on a career fast-track, is reluctantly tasked with investigating a Medal of Honor request for Pitsenbarger made by his best friend and partner on the mission (William Hurt) and his parents (Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd). Huffman seeks out the testimony of Army veterans who witnessed or were saved by Pitsenbarger’s extraordinary valor, including Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), Burr (Peter Fonda) and Mott (Ed Harris) and Pitsenbarger’s parents. Many of them carry their own demons from their experiences and trauma of that day and the war in Vietnam. But as Huffman learns more about Pitsenbarger’s courageous acts, he uncovers a high-level conspiracy behind the decades-long denial of the medal, prompting him to put his own career on the line to seek justice for the fallen airman.
Throughout the film in multiple flashback scenes, the Vietcong ambush of Army soldiers as they fight and die in the Vietnam jungle is shown in graphic realism. The attack is known as Operation Abilene. Young soldiers play Tulley (Ethan Russell), Takoda (Ser’Darius Blain), Burr (James Jagger), Mott (Zach Roerig), Kepper (Cody Walker), Holt (Richard Cawthorne), and Pitsenbarger as they fight. One sees the heroic service of airman Pitsenbarger as he drops into the firefight from a helicopter and goes to work as a medic. He waves off the helicopter, picks up a gun and starts to fight with his fellow comrades. Saving many, he dies a hero. The film also details the PTSD effect on each of the now old surviving veterans of the Vietnam War.
When a Senate effort on the floor of Congress fails, Huffman goes public with the story and ultimately a Medal of Honor is awarded to Pitsenbarger. At the awards ceremony Mott delivers Pitsenbarger’s last letter to the woman he loved. The airman’s cancer ridden father and mother are in attendance as their son’s duty, courage and sacrifice is recounted. The Air Force Secretary presents the Medal of Honor to the parents and then recognizes all in attendance. The epilogue points out that of the millions of veterans that have served their country, only 3,489 Medals of Honor have been awarded.