Tom Lynch

Falling Out Of Love With Your Country

Profilers: Gabby Franklin and Arianna Allen

Experience in Vietnam

My name is Tom Lynch. I am currently living in Indio, originally from New York. I served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 as a helicopter pilot.

Did your view of war change after being involved in it?

Oh sure. Well, the way that it was being played up in the news was very different than the reality of it. And I’m sure its very much the same thing today. I was never under the misapprehension that I was fighting to save the country. Unfortunately, in war, usually the biggest interests are business (whether you will be able to generate money for yourself) and I saw that first hand. Because of the nature of my job, I did a lot of special operations. I came to find that the government, probably 75% of the time, was lying about what was going on. The war was extremely unpopular at home so you virtually had no support from people at home…other than family. Those are the only people you depend on. Like in all wars, you weren’t fighting for the sake of people at home and the politicians and the rest of it. You were fighting for the guy standing right next to you. And that’s kind of what got me into it in the first place. I had a very dear friend who went to the Marines during Vietnam, and I just felt hopeless. I wanted to do something. I picked something where I thought I would be helpful. And so I started flying a gunship.

They were to support the slicks and to support the infantry if there was any other trouble on the ground, we had five different types of radios and we could actually speak to the guys on the ground when they were in trouble. We would go in and support them. Because of the way helicopters fly, you could get really close to them. You know, close air support…you really have to be right on top of the ground. And you can do that with a helicopter so we did a lot of that.

So was your job mostly shooting?

When I was flying gunships, yes, I shot everyday. We flew UH1s. In fact, that’s the only type of helicopter they had then. They have since been fine tuned and specialized. But they had a pilot, a co-pilot, a crew chief, and a gunner.

How did you get accustomed to having a gun in your hand everyday? How did that become normal?

If you’re in the military or the police or anything like that, you’re trained on how to use those things…the difference being that when you have an aircraft that’s armed, it’s bristling with armor. There are a lot of guns. It’s there for a reason. I don’t think you really get it in your head that you have a lot of power. You do…it’s suppressive power. As were most guys that fought the Vietnam War, it was mostly fought by very young guys. I turned 21 when I was in Vietnam. And I had the authority on some missions… I could call in B-52’s from Guam based on my decision.

When would you choose for that to happen?

One of the missions that we had that was extremely dangerous, but it was across the border, it was in Laos and Cambodia. You were going into…it was bad enough that you were actually happy to be back in Vietnam. Because at least there were a lot of Americans on the ground. Over there, we flew without nametags and dog-tags. If you got shot down, they would just blow up the aircraft. So, that’s kind of scary. But because there was such a preponderance of enemy soldiers on the ground, you would need fighters and bombers and all this kind of stuff to be in there.

I guess if I was to describe a best experience, it would be the camaraderie that you develop with the other people that you’re with because you’re sort of all in that thing together. Its not like you’re at a party and having a great time but you get close to people…the guys that I went to Vietnam with, I’m still very close to today. It was a bond like no other.

Do you have any particular stories that really helped shape you or shatter you?

You know, while I was there, it was very straightforward. It was simple in a way. I mean, I used to think of the words of George Patton, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink into insignificance.” Because, you know, it’s cut and dry. There were no nuances and no gray areas. It was either this or that.

That kind of helped me focus. One thing I will say is that it gave me great appreciation for life. That sounds all good, that can get a little complicated too. If you live everyday like it’s your last, it’s great when you’re a young guy, but once you get a family, that goes away…there better be a tomorrow, you know. That becomes an adjustment.

Overall, particular stories, I mean, jeez, one ran into the other. I got shot up. I had people in my crew shot up and killed. Bullets come through the floor. Everyday, I would…Not everyday but… One of the worst jobs that we had when we would fly back to base (cause we were supporting infantry guys and artillery fire bases and stuff like that). At the end of every day, the last helicopter that was done would have to stop by the bases and pick up the dead…the guys that were killed.

You know, in war, people don’t die clean deaths. Sometimes, there would be very little of what’s left of them. I’d fly them back to what’s called grave registration. And I would fly at a trim sideways so the air would whistle through the cockpit and stuff because otherwise, my crew would all be sick in the back.

Effects of Vietnam

Do you think your experience made you anti-war or did it instill patriotism?

You know, I have an appreciation for war. I understand it. I think there is a reason why the guys today are rattling their sabers…is because they have never experienced it except on TV. People that have experienced it, you know, guys like…There’s a famous quote by Eisenhower that says “hey, I’ve seen it, I know how brutal, stupid, and ignorant it is.” He said, “It’s the last thing that I want to do, but to get into another war.” Guys that have never had that experience seem a little too flip about getting into it. I appreciate it. I do think there is a purpose to it. Sometimes they say that war is the failure of political negotiation, which it is.

Do you believe that?

I do. If people were able to negotiate, you could probably talk your way out of it. But some people cannot be negotiated with no matter what. And that’s when there is a war. A lot of the wars that we have been in recently, I don’t believe in. I think they were spurious. I think they were manufactured and I think they were profit-based for corporations because there was no accomplishment to it. I remember, even after I got back from Vietnam…You know, what happened to me was, that’s another story.

After I came back from Vietnam, I was still in the army (thank goodness). It gave me kind of a pressure chamber. Ordinarily what helicopter pilots did was they would train for a year, go through flight school, they would go to Vietnam for a year, they would come back, train other guys to be pilots for a year, and then go back for a second tour. And so the war was starting to wind down, I did not have to go back for a second tour, although I volunteered to do it because I did not like being in the States because in those days, the military was considered perilous. People did not have the wisdom to separate the warrior from the war. And so, they blamed you for the reason why we were in Vietnam…which is the last person you should blame. The country was fickle. People were able to get out of the draft and I think they felt guilty about that and they overreacted because of that. So, I came back…When I got out of the military, I fell out of love with my country. I mean, I left the country. After the war, I lived outside the country for about 10 years.

Where did you live?

I went back to Asia. I was there for about another five years. I went to the Middle East for a while…and Europe. I lived in Alaska for a couple years. I just…The hypocrisy and I thought the ignorance of people in general… I couldn’t stand it.

I mean, I saw so many good people- the flower of my generation- die because of that war. And people who had no business profiting from it did so.

Remembering Vietnam

When you were in the Vietnam War, what was your relationship like with the civilians and people who lived there?

I like the Vietnamese. They were honorable people caught in a horrible situation.

It’s a civil war. And you know, civil wars never turn out well for anybody. I mean, it’s brother fighting brother. And there was no clear cut lines or anything like that. And you know, everyday, there would be a different group there. Who do you pledge your allegiance to when you’re like ‘oh you’re with those guys…oh sorry, we’re going to have to kill you… It was just very confusing. You know, Vietnam is a beautiful place.

Do you have any advice for the millennial generation regarding the military or service?

You know, I think…I think it is a valuable tool towards developing yourself as a person. And I think it’s a decent career. But even if you just had a short term with it, it teaches you some very valuable lessons about discipline and honor. I mean, honor is a word that I hardly ever hear anymore. And it’s something that is truly stressed in the military and it’s something that I feel very strongly about.

All I hear is that winning is everything. “Do whatever it takes to win.” It’s not a matter of where is your bond or anything like that. People feel that they can cheat. People just don’t have that sense of honor…integrity. And that’s an important thing in the military, particularly if you are an officer. They just drill that into you. So…I mean, I think that’s a good thing. But it’s what you make of it. Some people- it damaged irreparably. Other people rose to the occasion. It’s like anything: it’s what you make of it. It’s like college… some people are going to be digging ditches and some people will become CEOs.

What do you think was the biggest lesson learned from the Vietnam conflict for the U.S? And for you?

I would like to think that there was a lesson learned, but based on our history for the last fifty years, I don’t think there is a lesson learned at all. You know, the old saying is if generals had to fight wars, there would peace all the time. Generals and politicians create the problems and then they send the young guys out to fight the war. You know, and unfortunately, young guys are dumb as shit- just like I was- and they are only too happy to go and do it. But they suffer the consequences. There are some soaring moments of jubilation and pride and stuff that can come from those circumstances. But the other side of it can be a very black place…really difficult.

You were asking me before about good experiences and bad experiences and uh… Personally, I felt I made a difference because I know that I saved people’s lives. There is nothing more gratifying than to go land in some hot LZ with a bunch of scared as hell grunts jump in, some of them wounded and stuff and pull them out of there. I knew they appreciated it. They were pretty happy about it. On the other hand, I even hesitate to do this because it’s nightmarish. One of the lasting memories I have of Vietnam was flying and my co-pilot got shot and he was… We took him to the evacuation hospital to drop him off. And I went back to visit him the next day and… it was a general hospital so it wasn’t just GIs there, there were civilians there. And there was a baby there that a nurse was holding that had been caught up in a napalm strike. And the baby didn’t have a face…just had a mouth. I can’t get that image out of mind. I was like, “How is this person going to live? What is their life going to be like? And why?” They don’t even know why. They don’t have a clue and there are a lot of victims like that, a lot of people that come through the war. Even sometimes maybe it’s not the physical scars that you have, but the mental ones. That’s what PTSD is.

It’s a huge undertaking. I’m sure you have heard your dad say the same thing. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything in the world, but I don’t think I would want to go and do them over again.

Do you regret anything? Would you have done anything different?

You know, I don’t think I would have. I got out of there in one piece. I felt that I did some good. I know I saved lives. I know I took lives. I was a soldier. And that’s what I was doing. That’s what my job was. Um…No, I don’t think I would have changed anything.

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Steve Monsky

I’ve played tennis with Tom Lynch, partied at his home, seen him help his wife through a nasty hip operation, and had no words when he lost a son, yet until I read his war time mentality I knew nothing about Tom Lynch. This story of his war experience was powerful and while I liked him from the first day I met him I like and admire him so much more. Tommy-boy, thanks for telling your story and I’m honored to have you as a friend.
Steve Monsky