As a boy, Allen J. Lynch was a severely bullied and aimless kid growing up in the industrial neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side. He went on to serve in the Army, receive the Medal of Honor for the valor he displayed when he rushed to save three fallen comrades during a deadly firefight in Vietnam, and dedicate his life to helping his fellow veterans.
Today I talk to Allen about his story, which he shares in his recently published memoir: Zero to Hero: From Bullied Kid to Warrior. We begin our conversation discussing his childhood, when the bullying started, and how it affected his youth. Allen then shares the aimlessness he had as a high school graduate and how he carried it with him after he signed up for the Army, and at first struggled to adapt to military life. We then discuss how Allen ended up in Vietnam, the best friend he lost there, and the harrowing scenario that earned him a Medal of Honor citation. Allen then shares how receiving the Medal of Honor put him on a path of service in helping fellow veterans heal from the wounds of war. We end our conversation with a poignant discussion of Allen’s own battle with PTSD and how his motto of “others not self” has helped him deal with it.
- Allen’s post-WWII childhood, and why it was a magical time to be a young boy
- The influence of Allen’s father
- When Allen started getting bullied
- How his parents reacted to the bullying
- Why Allen enlisted in the Army, and how he ended up a “zero” there
- Why he then volunteered for Vietnam
- The story of Allen’s best friend Jerry
- The moment where Allen decided to go from zero to hero
- On his receiving the Medal of Honor for what he did
- How Allen then went to work “earning” that Medal of Honor
- Allen’s personal experience with PTSD
- The story of Allen’s mantra “Others Not Self”
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My interview with Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha
- The Era of Bright Expectations
- My interview with Dale Dye about the mask of command
- The Worth of War
- Why You Need a Philosophical Survival Kit
- A Field Manual for Life After Combat
- What is an Article 15?
- M203 grenade launcher
- Battle of Tam Quan
- Why Exercising in a Group Is the Best Medicine for Vets
- Vietnam Veterans of America
- Continuing the Mission of Service and Brotherhood
- The Importance of Having a Tribe
- Allen J. Lynch Foundation
- Operation Support Our Troops — America
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Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. As a boy, Allen Jay Lynch was a severely bullied and aimless kid growing up in the industrial neighborhoods of Chicago’s south side. He went on to serve in the army, receive the Medal of Honor for the valor he displayed when he rushed to save three fallen comrades during a deadly fire fight in Vietnam, and dedicate his life to helping his fellow veterans.
Today I talk to Allen about his story, which he shares in his recently published memoirs, Zero to Hero: From Bullied kid to Warrior. We begin our conversation discussing his childhood when the bullying started and how it affected his youth. Allen then shares the aimlessness he had as a high school graduate and how he carried it with him after he signed up for the army and at first, struggled to adapt to military life. We then discuss how Allen ended up in Vietnam, the best friend he lost there, and the harrowing scenario that earned him the Medal of Honor citation. Allen then shares how receiving the Medal of Honor put him on a path to service helping fellow veterans heal from the wounds of war and we end our conversation with a poignant discussion of Allen’s own battle with PTSD and how is motto, others not self, has helped him to deal with it.
After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/zerotohero. Allen joins me now via ClearCast.io.
Okay, Allen Lynch, welcome to the show.
Allen Lynch: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So you just published a memoir of yours. It’s called Zero to Hero: From Bullied Kid to Warrior. It’s about your experiences as a child but also leading up to your experience in Vietnam where you received the Medal of Honor. Before we get to that, let’s talk about your childhood because I thought it was really interesting because you grew up in a time right after World War II. It was an interesting time in American history. What was it like for you as a kid?
Allen Lynch: My childhood was really neat. Especially in looking at it from today’s point of view where kids are kind of bubble wrapped. One of my first memories was walking to school, kindergarten, five blocks away crossing a busy street, 111th street in Roseland, Illinois. Being able to walk to and from school at five years old. Playing with my friends after school until the lights went out. Playing games outside. There was no air conditioning so all the windows were open. Most mothers didn’t have jobs, so they were home. There was the mother underground so that when me and my friends were out doing stuff, there would always be this feeling of being watched from some window somewhere.
It was really kind of a neat time. We moved to a trailer park in Homewood. Eli’s Trailer Park. It was the same thing. We played, we had fun, we had the run of the trailer park. We even crossed a really busy street, I think it was Lincoln Ave and went into a graveyard and into a woods and a bum town one time. That’s what we called it back then. We had a lot of adventures, a lot of stuff.
We moved to Lake Eliza, Indiana and had the run of the woods. At seven/eight years old, I could take a 410 shotgun, go out into the woods and hunt squirrels and rabbit. It was a magic time to be a kid. It was a time when boys could just be boys.
Brett McKay: Another huge part of your childhood was your father who served in the military during World War II, he seemed like he had a big influence on you as a young man.
Allen Lynch: He did. My dad was one of these guys, he was of course raised during the Depression, the real depression where they worried about food, and heat, and clothing, and all of this stuff. I was raised on Depression stories of kicking coal off of freight cars so they could heat their apartment at night and when the electricity was turned off, how they were able to turn it back on. He was kind of a fix it man. We never had a lot of money growing up so if the house needed repair, we did it. I, being the boy, was the helper. My dad gave me that sense of I can fix anything. I can do anything.
Brett McKay: Did your dad serve in World War II?
Allen Lynch: He never went overseas. He was a dog handler. Gave me a love of dogs. When I was a kid, one of my only friends was my dog, Duke, and I trained him a little bit and taught him a lot of tricks because of my dad’s influence and how to train a dog properly and so on.
Brett McKay: Growing up, was there a military ethos in your family? Was there an idea that if you were a young man, if you were a boy, you were supposed to serve in the military at some point or was that not really a thing?
Allen Lynch: I was woke up to Reveille every morning. My dad would come in and whistle Reveille. That was at 5:30. Religiously. My dad had this thing that if my dad was up, everyone was up. Of course, being a traditional family back in the 50s, my dad would leave for work about 6:15/6:30. My mother would get up and cook him breakfast. I would be up and have breakfast with my dad. If I had school, I’d get ready for school. When we were out in Indiana, I had chores. When breakfast was done, my dad went to work and I went out to the garden, I weeded the garden, cut the grass and all that.
There wasn’t a you have to join the military kind of thing, but it was very clear that my dad was in charge. It was very clear that I was expected to do certain things everyday. Listening to my uncles talk about their time in the Navy, my dad’s time in the Army Air Corps, there was a real feeling of that was something I was going to have to do in my future.
Brett McKay: When you were a young kid, you grew up in a decidedly working class family, did you have high ambitions as a kid or was your goal just get a steady paying job after you graduated high school? What was that like for you?
Allen Lynch: I had very little ambition. I think what happened is when I was bullied, it kind of just sucked the life right out of me and alL I wanted to do when I was in high school was get out. I did not want to go to summer school again. I had to go because I failed Algebra my freshmen year. I just basically wanted to get through high school being white paint. It’s kind of there, you know it’s there, but you don’t really recognize it.
Basically, it was get out of high school, get a job somewhere, and wait to get drafted. Then, I decided, I’ll just enlist.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the bullying. You mentioned that because that was a big part of your story. When did that start happening to you when you were a kid?
Fourth grade. Three kids came to class, I don’t know why they took an instant dislike to me, but they did. My mother was quite a pacifist. She had me convinced- I don’t know what it is with moms but everything has to do with you could knock out an eye. You had this idea that if I hit somebody really hard, the eye would pop out. It was the idea of how would you feel if you hurt somebody? How would you feel if you knocked out an eye or hurt somebody like that or whatever.
So, I became afraid of hurting somebody. When you give fear a place inside of you, it grows like a cancer and it grew inside of me. I became afraid not only of hurting but of getting hurt. The funny thing was is as I was getting beat up, my eye wasn’t popping out. My teeth weren’t falling out and my jaw was never broken and it was hit plenty of times. It never seemed to register with me that I should hit back, so I didn’t.
They made my life from fourth grade all the way through eighth grade a living hell.
Brett McKay: Did it get better after eighth grade?
Allen Lynch: We moved to high school. We moved to Dalton, Illinois. It got a lot better because I was in a different school. It’s kind of one of those things that no matter where you go, there you are. The kid that was bullied in grade school and junior high was the same kid that went to this brand new high school and it wasn’t long before my cover got pulled. Basically, I confronted a kid, he stood up and I stood down. I just walked away from him right in front of the whole lunch room. I was right back to being that kid again.
The bullying wasn’t as bad, there was enough of it. Every class has its bullies and they found me and a couple of my friends to pick on. I ended up having a couple of fights in high school. I lost them both but at least I fought.
Brett McKay: Your mom was the pacifist. What did your dad think about?
Allen Lynch: My dad was not happy with me. He wanted me to punch ’em. His whole thing was when you push, you push back. When somebody pushes you, punch them in the nose. When someone messes with you, you get into a fight, you fight them, even if you lose and you bloody them, they’re gonna think twice about fighting you again.
He was not at all happy with me. I kind of think he wasn’t’ very proud of me when I was in grade school and high school and being bullied and all that.
Brett McKay: I imagine that affected you for a good deal of time, right?
Allen Lynch: Oh yeah. Bullying takes away your self image. It destroys it. A lot of parents don’t know that what they feel about their kids comes through. If I would tell my dad, as an example, that you weren’t very proud of me, he would go, “I was very proud of you. You were a wonderful kid.” But he wasn’t. He wasn’t because I was the kid that was getting picked on. I was the kid that had few friends. I was the kid that they kept asking me why couldn’t I be like one of my aunts or my uncles.
It did affect me. It affected me greatly. Almost destroyed me.
Brett McKay: You spent high school just getting ready to get out of high school and out of town. You decided to join the military. Why did you sign up? Was it just to do something different?
Allen Lynch: I knew I was gonna get drafted. When I graduated in 1964, there was only a couple of places you could go. You could go to college or trade school and get a deferment or you got drafted. That was it. I wasn’t interested in anything. I wasn’t interested in cars. I wasn’t interested in getting my hands dirty. I certainly didn’t have the grades to go to college. I knew I was gonna get drafted so I decided I’m gonna take control of my life and enlist.
I enlisted in the army and I was going to be a personnel specialist and that didn’t work out so well.
Brett McKay: Why didn’t it work out so well?
Allen Lynch: They offered me OCS- Officer Candidate School- so I had to change my MOS- my Military occupational specialty- from clerk typist to infantry. That set me up, of course, to go to OCS- Infantry OCS- and when I got out of that, I went to Germany and then I volunteered for Vietnam from there.
Brett McKay: What did your parents think when you signed up with the military?
Allen Lynch: My dad was happy. My mother not so much. I think my dad had this attitude of finally, he’s going to become a man because that’s what the military does. It will take raw material and make you a man. My mother, of course, was losing her little boy. They basically thought I would last about three seconds in the military. Here I am, I’m in the barracks with a bunch of other guys, I’ve been bullied all my life, how is this going to work out? They were pretty much afraid. I know my mom was not very happy at all.
Brett McKay: You mentioned, you did OCS but that didn’t really pan out for you. What do you think happened there?
Allen Lynch: It was another one of those no matter where you go, there you are. I went through basic training, a leadership school, and advanced infantry training. I was a squad leader in basic and a squad leader in AIT, went through that harassment, but OCS, the harassment is a lot different. It makes basic training and advanced infantry look relatively easy. I started thinking this was a personal thing, the TAC Officers were out to get me personally, which wasn’t true.
Basically, taking everything so personally, my morale went down and I was just that kid again. I did a drop one request.
Brett McKay: Did you feel disappointed in yourself that you did that?
Allen Lynch: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Man, I screwed this up again.
Allen Lynch: Yeah. It was here’s another failure. SO far, I’ve failed everything except basic and AIT. I was on that track and it was just I’m a dud.
Brett McKay: Right.
Allen Lynch: That’s all I am, I’m a dud.
Brett McKay: You’re a zero. That’s the zero part of the story. You drop OCS, you went to Germany. What were you doing there? Did you think you were gonna end up in Vietnam eventually and you thought this is just going to be my respite before that? What was the idea of going to Germany?
Allen Lynch: I went to Germany, I was just basically sent there and I thought Germany would just be my last duty station. I’d do my time in Germany and then in 1967, my three years would be up and I’d go home. That wasn’t the case. I didn’t like being cold. In Germany, we did a lot of field training exercises in the winter time. I got frost bite on my feet during one of those training exercises and I was offered an opportunity to reenlist. I was offered some money, a change of duty, and I was starting to like the army. I was really starting to like it. There’s just something about being a part of the team and being with a bunch of guys that are doing the same thing. You’re learning to trust each other.
In the back of my mind, I was kind of thinking, this might be what I’m going to do the rest of my life. I reenlisted and I ended up going to Berlin. I was assigned to a mortar platoon, not what I wanted to do. Again, being immature, I copped a bad attitude, I ended up getting two article 15s, those are non-judicial punishments. My first one was because I smarted off to my section sergeant and told him exactly in no uncertain terms what I thought of him. That cost me a 15 day confined to the barracks, 15 days of extra duty, seven days pay and suspended.
Then, I got a second article 15 for going AWOL to help a buddy that got some rather bad news from home. It was right about that time that Vietnam was really starting to heat up and a lot of my friends were getting levied for Vietnam and all that. I still had that stink of cowardice on me. I really need to prove myself to myself. I had come a long way. I was doing a lot of things. For the first time in my life I had pretty good friends. I just really felt the need to test myself and Vietnam was the event of my generation so I volunteered.
Brett McKay: You volunteered. You didn’t get drafted for it. You didn’t get sent there.
Allen Lynch: No. I volunteered for the first cavalry division. I got everything I wanted. I wanted infantry. I wanted the first cav. I got all of it. In spades.
Brett McKay: What did you know about Vietnam before you signed up?
Allen Lynch: Not a lot. I knew I was really geo- In fact, that was the only class I did well in high school, so I knew where it was. A lot of my friends were getting drafted. When I was in OCS, the first cavalry was deployed. By the time I had gotten to Germany, the battle had already been fought. Vietnam was now becoming a major engagement. It was a war. There were levies coming down all the time. People that had time in service and all that to spend a year in Vietnam, being levied for it. I just needed to be a part of it.
Brett McKay: You got sent to Vietnam. Where did you serve there?
Allen Lynch: Central Highlands. It was a place called Bin Din Province. It was the rice bowl of Vietnam.
Brett McKay: What was your role? You took on several roles while you were there, right?
Allen Lynch: Yeah. I started off carrying what they called an XM79. It was experimental model. It was an M16 with an M79 grenade launcher underneath. Now, it’s called the M203 grenade launcher. It’s the same thing. I carried that. I realized that was a real heavy load to carry. I carried 35 rounds of AG, some white phosphorous, wooly peter, some shotgun rounds, smoke. Then, I carried 35 magazines for the M16. I didn’t wanna run out of ammunition.
After about a month and a half of carrying that, I was able to get rid of it and just go to an M16. For the first several months, I was a grunt. I was a spec four part of a squad. Then, in November, it was late November, I got the opportunity to become a radio telephone operator, an RTO.
Brett McKay: This was 1967?
Allen Lynch: 1967.
Brett McKay: How long were you there in Vietnam?
Allen Lynch: I got there May 31, 1967. I left June 1, 1968.
Brett McKay: What were the conditions? Sometimes you describe Vietnam and it sounds kind of nice. These pristine beaches, there’s coconuts, but also it sounded terrible at the same time.
Allen Lynch: Yeah, it was a paradox. In 1967, we were still out to win the war. At least, that’s what we thought. I wasn’t there, I think it was about a month and the Vietnamese had their national elections. We were pulled out of the field. A lot of us thought we were actually seeing an American democracy forming right before our eyes. We were the French during the American war of independence. We were there to help. Little did we know, and I didn’t discover this until I started studying Vietnam years later, that the Vietnam election was rigged. It was basically a war that President Johnson had no intention of really winning. He didn’t have the stones to go in and actually go in and fight to win. He was basically wasting us but we didn’t know that in ’67.
We controlled our area of operation – the Bon Song plane. We had a lot of contact but we won every battle. We were overpowering the enemy all the time. We were fighting both the NVA- North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. We basically- I wrote home I remember to my mom and dad- we owned the area. We did our ambushes and all that stuff that we do but they would run from us because we had such tremendous support.
Brett McKay: You talk about a situation where you make some good friends during Vietnam. You made one really good friend, but you lost him quickly. Can you tell us about that?
Allen Lynch: Yeah. His name was Gerry Briants. We came in country together. Gerry was one of those guys that if we were down on our luck, if we had no C rations or were running out of cigarettes and he had one, he’d share it. He was just a good guy. Real nice guy. He was from Sholsburg, Wisconsin. He told the story of how we was a kid, he was out farming, he was a farmer, he was out on his tractor and lightening struck him and almost killed him. Ended up in the hospital. I guess a year later or so, he got kicked in the head by a horse and ended up back it the hospital.
He almost died twice. He said, “Three strikes and you’re out. I know if something happens here I’ll probably not survive it.” He would say it and tell it in such a funny way, he’d just have us in stitches. With every story, he added a little bit to it.
We were up in … Province and we were in an area that looked a lot like Wisconsin. We had lunch together, we were talking about going fishing when we got back to the world and all that. We started to move down the trail, our point men hadn’t gone probably 50 meters and our point men came back and signaled that there was movement. The LT went running up and Gerry got behind a tree. I got behind a stump. This guy, I think I called him Fred in the book, got behind a bush. He was our M60 machine gunner. Our real gunner was on R and R. He had been newly assigned. I think he came in with us or shortly after us. He had a real bad attitude. He was a kid from New York. Real smart mouth. We didn’t know how lazy he was until the machine gun jammed.
Lieutenant came running back and he called cease fire, cease fire, cease fire. They are friendly. Unbeknownst to us, the special forces were running with some mountain yards in the area. We called them CIDG- Civilian Indigenous Personnel. After yelling cease fire three times, Gerry and I stood up and Fred shot him in the chest with the machine gun which immediately jammed because it was so dirty. Gerry went down like stone, he ended up dying on the helicopter, the medevac that came in. They didn’t tell me that for a few days because I threatened to kill him if Gerry died. They gave it time to cool down.
Over the course of a few days, a lot of my friends came up and talked about what a great guy Gerry was and all that. How sad it would be that if something happened to Gerry- I think everybody knew but me- that three families would be destroyed. Gerry’s family, my family, and the guy that shot him.
When I found out Gerry was dead, I forget who it was probably saved me. Came up and had a nice chat with me because I was by myself having a cigarette. He said, “Fred is going to have to live with the fact that he killed one of our own.” That kind of hit me. I didn’t do anything, and I told him I wasn’t going to do anything. He was ostracized. We didn’t accept him too easily back into the fold.
He earned his way back in. When I left Vietnam, he had made Sergeant and I think he was a squad leader. I’d like to think that he lived a good life in replacement for the life that he took. That’s what I’m hoping.
Brett McKay: How did that moment influence the rest of your experience in Vietnam?
Allen Lynch: I didn’t make a lot of friends after that. I had a lot of acquaintances. I was friendly. I never got close to anybody. I still have a hard time getting close to people. It’s very difficult to do that. It affected me in a way that you make friends with someone and they get killed, they die. That’s taken me a lot of years to deal with. The thing is, now I know that I have the issue so I try really hard to be a little bit more friendly than probably I normally would. But still, it’s difficult to do it.
Brett McKay: For most of your life, you’ve been this zero. Kid that got bullied, no ambition, smarted off to superiors, would get busted down to private first class. But then you had this moment where you had the decision to go from a zero to hero. This is the situation that eventually earned you the Medal of Honor. Can you walk us through that scenario?
Allen Lynch: Sure. We had been up in … and think about the middle of November, we got taken back to join the Battle …. For my part, I was now an RTO, radio telephone operator and carried a 25 on my back along with basic load ammunition and all that. I was kind of like my LT’s shadow. The day of the action, we got a brand new Lieutenant, Lieutenant Donal Sutherland. Very courageous guy. I only knew him for like four hours. What I found out, what I didn’t know until I started writing the book is that he pretty much demanded to go out with the unit the day we air assaulted in. He talked to our Captain and said, “I wanna go, I wanna do this. I wanna be a part of this. Give me the platoon.”
He got second platoon. I became his RTO and his shadow. It was right after we had a break for noon chow. We started moving in to relieve A company and hit the enemy from the side, from the flank. We walked into an ambush. It was a three sided box. We walked right into the middle of it and all hell broke loose. Lieutenant ran up, me along with him, to the front to see what was happening. About that time, we were taking fire, sending traffic back to our company commander, letting him know what was going on. We were taking fire from our flank and so on.
Wilhem, one of the point men, came running back, got shot about half way to us. I went out and I got him. I think a medic came out, as I recall, to help us out. We got him back to our lines and he said that … had gotten shot in both shins. Couldn’t walk, couldn’t move. I asked the LT if I could drop my radio and go out and get him. I went out there with the intention of getting him and coming back and getting him medevac. That wasn’t the case. As soon as I got in the ditch and started doing what I had to do, all hell broke loose again. A lot of fire came down. Just as I thought, I’m going to put him on my back and I’m going to carry him out. Joe Esparza came running across and got shot pretty far from us but close enough to me that I could get him.
I ran out. Got him. Got him back in the ditch. There where we stayed. Unbeknownst to me at the time, our company had pulled back because they had taken such heavy fire. They led one rescue mission to try to get to us. During that rescue mission, Lieutenant Sutherland got shot in the head and died. Another guy got wounded so they pulled back again. They tried another time to get to us. Again, that didn’t work.
Finally, an APC- armored personnel carrier- was sent over. They were going to back it up to our position. Drop the back ramp and then we could load in and go away. We saw the APC pull up to us, lower its ramp and then it got hit with an RPG. It was like are you kidding me? We were literally feet away from being rescued. When the RPG hit the track, my captain was blown out of the turret, the commander’s hatch and ended up being severely wounded. They pulled back and that was the last time they tried to get to us. They then called in continuous artillery and air strikes. That went on for a long time.
In the meantime, we were killing a lot of Viet Cong and NVA and whoever was coming within a place where we could get them. Then it got really quiet. I thought it was time to see what we could do. I went up and I made sure there was no VC working in the area. When I realized it was safe and had checked a couple of hoaches and something. I moved first and got him to a place and then I went back and got Esparza and moved him to an area. I was gonna just start doing a little bit of concentric trying to find our guys.
I didn’t go maybe 100 meters and there they were. They called me. We went back and got the wounded and we all got medevac together.
Brett McKay: How long were you guys pinned down?
Allen Lynch: The citation in some of the stuff had two hours. I think we were there for abour four. It was right after chow when we got in and it was dark when we got out. We were there a long time.
Brett McKay: It sounds like you weren’t even really thinking about- you just decided there’s some guys out there who need my help. I’m gonna go out there and do it. What was going through your mind? Is that what you’re thinking? I gotta go help my buddies?
Allen Lynch: Yeah. You’re trained in basic and in AIT and it’s the warrior ethos that you never leave your wounded. I’ve been asked this question a lot, over the years as I’ve gotten a lot older I’ve become more reflective and I think the reason that I did what I did was because of the upbringing that I had. My mother and dad, my grandfather and grandmother, my whole family were made up of people who knew how to sacrifice not only for their family. My dad sometimes worked three jobs because he didn’t think my mother should have to work. She had a tough enough job raising my sister and I. My grandmother and grandfather used to take food and clothing to poor people. Back in the 50s and early 60s. My mother often took in laundry and prepared meals for people in the neighborhood and such that were sick. This was how I was raised.
Then, you have your drill sergeants that tell you, you don’t leave your wounded. They inspire you to that’s what we don’t do. They do that by if you fall out on a run, if you let somebody fall out on a run or during PT and you don’t help them out, then you do a lot more. There’s that negative reinforcement. I think when that happened, there was no time to think, you just had to do what I had to do.
Brett McKay: After you did it, were you thinking, wow, that was a pretty crazy thing that I went through. That’s something that is worthy of the Medal of Honor or were you just like I gotta go on. That was just part of my job. On to the next thing.
Allen Lynch: That’s it. I really don’t believe at this point that I deserved the Medal of Honor. I was put in for it by my peers. I’ve always felt that as a result of getting that Medal that I owed something and I had to give something back, which is why I devoted my life to veterans. I look at people that did so much more than me that got a Bronze Star, or a Distinguished Service Cross, or a Silver Star and I go, how did I get this?
Even when I was going through a lot of stuff, it was the one thing in the back of my mind that I had to now earn it. There’s a scene in Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks, the captain is shot and Private Ryan runs up to him and he looks at him and he says earn this. THat’s kind of how I felt.
Brett McKay: That changed your life. As you said, you spent the rest of your life, really, trying to earn that. Talk about that. How did you go about earning your Medal of Honor in your mind?
Allen Lynch: Well, I started as a Veteran’s Benefit Counselor at a VA hospital. Worked with returning Vietnam Veterans. I ended up doing a couple of things there. I worked in drug unit. Some of our guys in the 70s were coming back hooked on various drugs. I did that. The more I got into veteran’s benefits work, I became a veteran’s benefits counselor and I started filing claims for veterans and helping them with appeals. I really started to like that.
The biggest thing was when I became a member of the executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program and started working with my brother veterans and getting them jobs and helping them to get through the big unemployment that we had in the 70s and 80s.
The best thing, the best thing, and something that I turned out to be really exceptional at was as a Vietnam Veterans of America Service Officer and I did that through the Illinois Attorney General’s office. They only let me work appeals. A lawyer taught me how to write legally. She was really good with the red pen. My caseload was nothing but VA appeals, I didn’t cherry pick. I worked really hard to get the hardest cases I could find and I won most of them. I probably make millions of dollars for veterans in compensation. The first attorney general I worked for, Neil Hardigan and I, we went to Washington and lobbied for judicial review of VA claims with Vietnam Veterans of America.
I’m very, very proud of that. After I retired in 2005, we formed the Lynch Foundation to help veterans of our current war that were coming home that were falling through the cracks. OUr program is now part of Operation Support our Troops America, which we now have care packages we send overseas, we work with Gold Star Families and what we call Leap of Faith. Then, we have the Lynch Program that helps veterans having financial difficulty.
Brett McKay: You’ve been doing a lot to turn that Medal in your mind and helping your fellow veterans. You also talk about in the book, while you were helping veterans with different problems, not only financial, career, drug problems. You’re helping them with their problems with PTSD. Those emotional problems and trying to go through the stuff they went through psychologically during the war. You yourself started experiencing PTSD during this. When did that start happening and how did it manifest itself?
Allen Lynch: 1973. It was the summer of 1973. It was the first time that I ever had a dive on the floor startled reaction. It was hot. I had just got off the bus from work. I was walking home about three blocks. I was soaking wet when I got home. It was hot. It was humid. Got into the house, got into some dry clothes. I sat down to dinner. There was a flash of lightening and the roll of thunder and I was on the floor. My wife said that I got a strange look on my face and ended up on the floor. Started with a bad startle reaction. Sudden noises would just make me duck and sometimes- I was at one event where they fired a Civil War Cannon and I ended up in my suit diving into the mud.
Then, I started having intrusive thoughts and anger. Vivid thoughts of Vietnam. A smell would set me off. Heat. Different things. Smells. A few nightmares. Suicidal ideation. The whole nine yards. It came in waves. I would have times when it would be fine and I would have a normal month, years of not much happening and then something would set me off and I’d get very depressed and angry and reclusive and drink way too much. All the negative stuff.
Brett McKay: When did you realize that you gotta do something about this? At what point?
Allen Lynch: It was in the early 90s. I had been doing a lot of work with veterans. Filing a lot of claims. What would happen is I would read the medical records on some of the appeals that I would be fighting. That would bring back even more vivid memories because you’re reading about somebody that was in combat and I would go, my gosh, this is exactly what I did. This is where I was. This is what I went through. That would trigger memories.
Eventually, I realized I needed to get help. Things were not going good at home, I was a jerk. I could put that in a lot stronger terms but I won’t. It was made very clear to me that I needed to get some help. I went to the Evanston Vet Center in Chicago, I started seeing Betsy Tolston who was the psychologist there. She wanted to put me on medication and I told her no. I’ve worked in the VA Hospital, I saw what the VA does with medications. I said no, you either fix me, give the tools I’ll work hard, I’ll do everything you say. I’m in it to win it. I’m not here to play games but I’m not going on medication. We worked. The first time I saw her was for a couple of years. Two or three years.
She pretty much helped me out. She actually gave me my first good Christmas since Vietnam. I used to go into a deep depression around Thanksgiving and it wouldn’t end until March April, sometimes longer. In therapy, we talked about some of the things that were really bothering me and one was the death of my buddy, Gerry. She gave me an assignment to find his grave and to film it. I went out and I bought a little movie camera. I went out and I found his grave which took me the better part of a day. I finally found where he was buried. I filmed that. I talked to him. Told him what was going on in my life and all that. Left my business card on his gravestone. Came home and in the meantime, my wife had cooked dinner, beef stroganoff was and is her go to dish, she’s really good at cooking it.
Each of my kids told me what mattered most to them and then I told them about Gerry. My youngest son, Brian, was named after him. In the army, we go by last names. All I knew him by was Briants so my last son’s name is Brian. I explained why and I told him about Gerry. It was like I had the best Christmas.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you were able to start treating that wound that you had. Is it still ongoing?
Allen Lynch: Yeah. I’m able to handle it a lot better but yeah, it’s obviously kind of raw still.
Brett McKay: Of course. One thing that struck me, we talked about it too on this podcast, this sort of ethos that you grew up with thanks to your parents, your mom and your dad, grandparents. Something that has helped you a lot, this idea, and I love this mantra, others not self. How has that helped you? That’s kind of what made you do the thing that you got the citation for the Medal of Honor but it seems like it’s the thing that has been therapeutic for you after the war. This idea of others, not self.
Allen Lynch: Yeah. It actually saved my life. I was on a very bad path. It’s like a guy drowning in knee deep water. It was right there. Right in front of me my whole life. I didn’t see it. What PTSD does to us is it forces us to dwell in and upon ourselves. We become almost like an emotional black hole. I can tell you the way my friends and I talked about it, it was my PTSD won’t let me. My PTSD. We own it. I had nightmares last night. My intrusive thoughts. My this. My that. It’s all about you. It’s all about me. It’s all about what I’m going through.
At the worst possible time in my life, I had to focus on somebody else and not me. My dad got terminal lung cancer and spent a year dying. For that year, it was at the end of the work day, go to the hospital. During the weekend, go down and give my mom a break because she was taking care of him and my sister was just a few doors down but they were both being run ragged by him because he was having so many issues and so many problems with the lung cancer. I would go there on the weekends and stay over night. Sometimes I’d go there, take a day off work and go on a Wednesday and come home on a Thursday.
I was totally focused on my dad. My symptoms didn’t go away but they just lessened to where they were just very manageable. A couple of years later, after my dad passed, my mother suffered a massive stroke and I ended up going to the nursing home to see her. When she was close, I would go sometimes during the week and every weekend I would go see her. Again, I was concentrating on my mom. I was concentrating on seeing her, the symptoms mitigated and became a lot less.
By accident, it kind of hit me. Boy, when I was taking care of my parents, I wasn’t having a lot of symptoms going on. Again, one of these serendipity things, I was at a Rotary, I think I was giving a talk there and one of their things is not self, others, not self. Something like that. I couldn’t remember exactly what it was so I thought that’s it. That’s the key. I focused on the needs of other people and I put them first, then my situation, my PTSD is no longer the total focus on my life, it’s other people.
I put that on my challenge coin. Others, not self. I put that in my pocket so when I start getting into that pity, poor me mode, and my PTSD and I even try now not to use any ownership of it. I view it as the enemy. It’s like the Viet Cong, it’s like the NVA. I’ll be damned if it’s going to win. I fight it like that. That’s why I do what I do with the foundation and other things. The first person I put first was mu wife and kids and my grandkids.
Brett McKay: I love that mantra. I’ve seen that in my own life. I don’t have PTSD but whenever I get down on myself, feeling down, as soon as I shift my focus away from myself and focus on others, it just goes away. It’s amazing what that can do.
Allen Lynch: Yeah. I tell you, a lot of veteran friends that I have, I tell them for me, that was the key. It may not work for them but for me, that’s the big key.
Brett McKay: Well, Allen, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book Zero to Hero?
Allen Lynch: Know they sell it on Amazon. I’ve heard some people have found it at Borders. I know it’s on Amazon.
Brett McKay: Where can people go to learn more about your foundations?
Allen Lynch: They can go to Operation Support Our Troops America. They can Google that or just go OSOT-America. Just type it into your search engine and that will tell you all about what we do.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Allen Lynch, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Allen Lynch: Thank you for having me, appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Allen Lynch, he’s the author of the book: Zero to Hero. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his veteran foundation at aylynchfoundation.org. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is.zerotohero where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another addition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website, artofmanliness.com where you can find all of our podcast archives. We’ve got over 500 there. We’ve also got thousands of articles about personal finance, physical fitness, how to be a better husband, better father. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Itune or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you have done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member if you think would get something out of it.
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