I’m going to ask you first just to give us your title and full name, spelling it for the transcriber, so.
Okay. Yeah, I’m Lieutenant General Ricky Lynch, R-I-C-K-Y L-Y-N-C-H, and I’m currently the commanding general of the United States Army’s Installation Management Command.
You’re a lieutenant general, right?
And we’re going do this—in oral history—I don’t know how much Colonel Betros told you about what an oral history is as far as what we’re establishing here—but the oral history really is sort of cradle to present moments. So I’m going talk to you about where—to begin with—about where you grew up and how you got interested in the military, and then eventually we’ll move into your role particularly in combat in Iraq. I think that’s going to be a focus of what we’re going do, so.
Can we do all this in an hour—will that be—
Well, we’ll do as much as we can, and—
’Cause I’ll be back.
Yeah, because I think it’s nice, actually, to think of it—let’s do well what we can do well, and then we’ll move on with a second interview as you come back here for another. This’ll be like what you do here. So tell me, do you come from a military family?
No, not at all. In fact, my dad was a private E-1 when he was drafted in 1945. He was a private E-1 when he was kicked out of the Army in 1947. He was the world’s worst soldier, and he’s very proud of that fact. To this day, he’s proud.
So they kicked him out?
Yeah, the Army didn’t like him, and he didn’t like the Army, so it was a mutual agreement that he ought to leave. He left with an honorable discharge, but if the rank structure reflects the manner of performance, it probably wasn’t that good—Private Lynch.
Sounds like he was proud of it, too.
Yeah, he was proud of it—he was. I mean, he was proud of his service. He’s an 83-year-old veteran now. He’s proud of his service, but he didn’t particularly enjoy being told what to do, which is the backbone of what we do in the military.
It sure is. So he was stationed in Europe?
Yeah, he was stationed in Germany, went there at the end of the war, and his primary function was to facilitate guarding of German prisoners—that’s what he did. He tells all sorts of stories about how he did that, all of which cause the hair on the back of my neck to stand up, because he didn’t do it very well.
Yet, despite all of that, you decided to choose an Army career. How’d that happen?
It worked out, both my parents worked at the paper mill in Hamilton, Ohio. In Hamilton, Ohio, everybody works at—
Right near Cincinnati, about 23 miles away from Cincinnati. And everybody that lives there worked at the paper mill, that’s what that town did. So Mom and Dad both worked shift work, 3 to 11, 7 to 3—shift work—and we had no money. I mean, we literally had no money. There was myself, my mom, my dad, and my brother, and two half-brothers.
So I walked into my guidance counselor as a junior in high school—her name’s Eileen Lowell—I remember it like it happened yesterday. I said, “Ma’am, I do well in school, and I think I need to go to college, but we can’t afford to go to—my parents can’t afford to send me to college.” I said, “Do we have any options?” And she said, “Well, they’ve got these things called military academies.” And I said, “Well, how much do they cost?” And she said, “Nothing—they pay you to go,” which I found to be intriguing.
So I applied to both West Point and Annapolis. I got my West Point acceptance on a Monday and my Annapolis acceptance Tuesday, the next day. And truly, the only reason I went to West Point and not Annapolis is ’cause I got it the day before. I mean, the postman truly determined my fate. And then I went home, after I was accepted to West Point, and I told my dad, I said, “I’m going to West Point.” He said, “Boy, what are you doing that for? That’s the Army. Why are you going to West Point?”
But I went because I wanted the college education. And as soon as I got here, I realized what it meant to be in the Army. 1973, when I walked in the Academy, was greeted by the man in the red sash, as everybody else is when they come to the Academy. You went through this experience called Beast Barracks, and three weeks into it, you ask yourself, “Why did I do this?” So three weeks into it, I had a chance to call home, so I called my dad, and I said, “You’re right, Dad. This place is not for me. The Army’s not for me. I’m coming home.” And there was a pregnant pause on the phone, and then he said, “Where you going to sleep?” So I really had no place to go to—it was tough love extraordinaire.
He didn’t want you to come home if you were quitting.
No. He said, “You started it—you’re going to finish it.” So, hung up the phone, went back to Beast Barracks, finished that up. Worked freshman year, Yearling Year, as hard as I could academically, doing all the things that cadets are supposed to be doing. I think midway through my Yearling Year I really hit my stride as a cadet and enjoyed my time at the Academy.
But when I left in 1977, I told myself, “Well, I’m going to do it for five years, and then I’m going to go do something else”—and that was 33 years ago, and I continue to serve to this day, because what we do is so important. But there wasn’t any military lineage. There’s nobody in my—candidly, there’s nobody in my immediate family who graduated from high school, let alone graduated from college, graduated from West Point, graduated from MIT. And nobody has any military background, so I was really blazing a trail for my family.
Now class of ’77 was the cheating scandal class.
Tell me about how you heard about that, what the reaction was among the Corps of Cadets, and whether you were aware of anything going on.
Yeah, it was a traumatic event for my class, as history will tell you. Sid Berry was the Superintendent of the Academy at the time, and he wanted to form an internal review panel, consisting of three full colonels and two cadets, to investigate the allegations, and I was one of the two cadets. One of the cadets was an honor rep, and then me—so I wasn’t an honor rep. But in my particular company, A-2, there weren’t any indications of cheating, so General Berry wanted to get somebody from that company to be part of this internal review panel.
And you had no knowledge of anything going on in any other companies either.
No, I was oblivious to it all.
You were—it shocked you when you heard about it.
Shocking is an understatement. But I was involved in looking at every allegation and making a determination with those three colonels and the other cadet—how expansive was this potential problem, and then what should we do about it. And we fed that information to General Berry, who was the Superintendent, and General Walt Ulmer, who’s a good friend of mine, who was the Commandant of Cadets.
So tell me a little bit about what you discovered.
It was a difficult discovery. For those who served at the Academy, you realize that you form relationships that are so very strong, and in my particular case, with my company, we had been in the same company for our entire time as a cadet. So we go through Beast Barracks together, we go through Plebe Year together, you form relationships, and then those relationships carry you through the rest of your life.
Apparently, in some companies—not A-2, there was a couple of companies that hadn’t been touched by the honor scandal— apparently in some companies, those bonds had become so close that they had crossed the line and were violating routinely the Cadet Honor Code. Well, when we did the investigation—
In other words, to interrupt you, so the notion— your understanding of it—was that the social or personal bond was so developed and so keen that it overrode the honor system.
Yeah. There were cliques that had been developed based on three years together that allowed these folks, for whatever reason—’cause I never got into the psyche of the individuals—but for whatever reason, they thought it would be appropriate.
Remember, West Point back then, if you wanted to cheat, you could. You had access to the folks who had already taken the same test you’re going to take. If you wanted to cheat, you could. The Honor Code demands that you don’t. And oh, by the way, you don’t tolerate those that do.
So as we did the investigation, some of the cheating was so blatant that one youngster would have, during the course of taking a test, he had doodled, and then the kid who copied the test actually copied the doodle. I mean, there was no debate that the copying had taken place. In the course of interviews, you found that some folks had been talking about the test when they shouldn’t have, but a good portion of my classmates that were turned out or turned back were turned out or turned back because they tolerated it.
This is a difficult thing for me today. In that company that had been together for three years, if you did not cheat personally, but you knew that your best friend, the guy you’ve been through Beast, and Plebe Year with, and Yearling with, that he had cheated, you by the Honor Code are supposed to turn him in, right? Some folks chose not to do that, and as a result of not turning in their buddy, they were also guilty, and action was taken.
To this day, in my own company—thank God that we weren’t confronted with that experience. I was oblivious to anybody cheating, and in some companies, apparently, it was much more rampant than that.
If your best friend had cheated and you were aware of it back then, you think you would’ve turned him in?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself almost every day for the last 35 years, and I’m not sure today of that answer. I’m not. I today still have great personal relationships with friends that were formed when I walked into the Academy, and if those buddies of mine, who are so close today, and were close back then, had cheated, I can’t say a 100% that I would’ve turned them in. I just thank God I wasn’t confronted with that. A lot of my friends were. A lot of my friends made the decision to turn their buddies in, a lot of them chose not to.
What are the implications—why an Honor Code? I’ll put it this way—what are the implications for violating the Honor Code or treating it loosely in the succeeding career of a soldier?
Yeah. West Point made me what I am today. I told this story today—every time I come back to West Point, the place becomes more important to me. Every time I’m back here, I think back about my formative years. Nobody can attest with any degree of honesty that they truly had fun at the Academy. I mean, it was a demanding experience in the early ’70s, I’m sure it’s a demanding experience today.
But West Point changed me—from the boy from Hamilton, Ohio, whose parents worked at the paper mill, to what I am today. And the essence of that was really two-fold. One was the cadet prayer. Before we came to this interview, I went back to—my wife and I went back—to another church service because I wanted to get re-grounded in my Christian beliefs.
In high school, and growing up, we never went to church—my parents never took me to church. The only time I went to church was with the neighbors if they wanted us to go. I remember vividly one time a Baptist minister knocked on our door in Hamilton, Ohio, and came in and told my parents that they were going to hell because they drank and they smoked, and your kids are going to hell as well, because they haven’t been baptized. And my dad threw him out of the house. That was the extent of my religious upbringing as a child.
Were your parents atheists, or—
No, not atheists—they both are strong believers, but they weren’t active church-goers. I mean, to this day Dad’s not convinced that you need to go to church to be an active believer. But in that situation, they didn’t raise their kids in an environment— I mean, it wasn’t that we weren’t a Christian family, but we weren’t an active church-going family.
But when you become a cadet at the Academy—and my class, I was the first class where attendance at chapel wasn’t mandatory, but we still went. So it really was the establishment of my Christian faith—and oh, by the way, when today when we recited the cadet prayer, it’s as powerful to me today as it was back then. And things that are in the cadet prayer—a cadet will not lie, a cadet will always choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, a cadet will have the cheerful countenance, a cadet will never tolerate a half-truth when the whole truth can be run—that’s how I’ve lived my life.
The other piece is the Honor Code. To me, it’s black and white—there’s no shades of gray when it comes to honor. A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those that do—and that’s how I’ve lived my professional life as well. And in very many delicate and difficult situations as a commissioned officer, when you run across a situation, you realize that that Honor Code that was important as a cadet is important to you as a professional officer. So it’s the essence of what I am.
Coming into the Army as an officer, a West Point officer, do you feel it’s part of your charge to communicate that code to your enlisted men?
By all means. By all means. And demonstrate. I mean, an officer has to be the moral compass of his organization. That’s why at all levels where I’ve commanded, I made a point to gather up officers and highlight for them one of the differences between the officer and the enlisted. The officer has to be the moral compass and has to demonstrate integrity. And then advocate for everybody in the formation the importance of that.
I mean, a man’s word has to be his bond. It has to be taken at face value. And in difficult times over the course of my career, I had to know that if I were to ask you a question, the answer was the truth. If I had to debate the answer in my own head, whether or not you’re telling me the truth, it was a major problem for me. And oh, by the way, I won’t tolerate violations of integrity. I didn’t as a cadet, and I don’t as a general officer.
That’s hard, though, isn’t it—I mean, particularly in combat situations. We had a colonel in here last week who was—commanded a Stryker brigade in Iraq and was telling us how difficult it was to balance the directive to his men. On the one hand, they had to dehumanize the enemy in order to be able to accomplish the task they needed to accomplish, but at the same time, they needed 30 minutes later to be completely compassionate and humanitarian in their mission. And that consolidating those two missions within the mind and heart of a single soldier is one of the biggest challenges that a leader has.
You agree with that?
Well, first off, I don’t agree with the phrase “dehumanize the enemy,” I ain’t buying into that.
Tell me why.
On the fields of battle—I’ve had now three tours in Iraq—it’s hard to discern the enemy—the good guys from the bad guys. And candidly, what I found myself confronted with, at all levels of command in [the] Iraq [War], is three groups of bad people—criminals, extremists, and terrorists. Terrorists doing it for philosophical reasons, extremists doing it primarily for sectarian reasons, and criminals doing it for personal gain.
And in some cases, I found people that on one day, they were part of the solution, and on the next day, were part of the problem—but I never dehumanized them. They were still human beings, and the people of Iraq are an educated people that I grew to enjoy being around, over time. If you allow your formation to dehumanize the public—’cause remember, you can’t discern from the enemy and the friendly. I mean, I was there as we worked our way through this establishment of the Sons of Iraq program. It turned the tide, and I guess we’ll talk about that in some level of detail later.
We will, yeah.
But what I would not ever tolerate is people either talking about or acting in a way where the Iraqi people were treated anything less than humans. We are supposed to treat people the way we choose to be treated, and that’s what I demanded of my formations.
So you make that distinction with respect to this particular mission—and I assume you talk about well, you have two, really, in a sense, because when we’re army-to-army, it’s a different formulation, right?
Well, I mean, it wasn’t—I mean, during the time in Iraq—and I had three different occasions to go back into Iraq—on each occasion, what we were trying to do is discern on a routine basis, how do we keep the fence-sitters from becoming the enemy, and how do you keep them on your side of the fence. And that was an important piece of what we did every day.
You know, if you refer back to my—in my earlier portion of my career, I was there in OP Alpha in the Fulda Gap as a Squadron 311th ACR when the Wall came tumbling down. But to that point in time, the enemy was much more discernable. I mean, I could look through my binoculars and see the enemy looking back at me, and I knew who the other guy was, and we knew how we were going to take appropriate action. That’s all blurred over time, it’s not that clean any more.
But it goes back to fundamentally teaching your people duty, honor, country—teaching them ethics, teach them to conduct themselves in a professional manner. I think that’s important to a formation.
But isn’t it hard when you’re fighting a war that involves an insurgency like the one in Iraq—we’ll get into details about this later, but I just want to find out sort of philosophically—and you know that there are fence-sitters. That means on one day they may be working, in a sense, as the enemy—and the next day maybe the Sons of Iraq or they may be someone who’s actually going to participate in the solution. First of all, it’s hard to know which day you’ve hit them on. And second, it’s hard to trust one characterization or the other, ’cause they’re going to change—they’re going to morph over time.
Yeah, but you set the day—see, that’s the whole point. First off, if you go in the conversation believing that they’re good people—I mean, some folks just deserve to be killed, no doubt about that. We had groups of folks that we tracked that were terrorists, and we knew that there was no choice. You weren’t going to convince them to be a good guy, and if they were a good guy on any one day, they’re probably going to be a bad guy the next day, and you need to kill or capture those people. In my formation, we killed or captured about 6,000 over the course of the surge while we were there.
But everybody else—remember, 16 million people, 16 million people in Iraq—on any given day, we could only identify probably 2 or 3,000 terrorists that we were chasing around. The majority of the people, they just wanted to have an opportunity to care for themselves and their families. That’s what they wanted. As you got a chance to get to know them better—I mean, their focus was taking care of their family, their identity with their family. And what I had to do, we all had to do, is give them an opportunity to take care of their family. So you set the day. It wasn’t like on any given day they woke up, did a big stretch, and said, “I think I’ll plant an IED today.” They didn’t. That’s not the way it goes over there, then or now. But if they could take care of their family, and had a secure environment, and could ensure their kids were going to school and getting medical care, then they were much less likely to do something bad.
Let’s go back to the—we have sort of veered off from where you were in your class of ’77. So you weren’t there when Goodpaster arrived then, I guess—that was the next year, is that right?
Yeah, Goodpaster came in after I had left.
That would be General Goodpaster returning here after the Honor Code scandal, right?
Right. Walt Ulmer left while I was still here, and John Bard came in as a Commandant. And then Sid Berry was the Sup through the duration of my time as a cadet, if I remember right, and then Goodpaster came in.
As a sort of move to clean up what had happened, right?
Well, Frank Borman had a commission that was formed, did some analysis as to what we ought to do about these cliques that had formed. Determinations were made to do things like, rather than let cadets stay in the same company for four years, split them after two years. All that stuff was a reflection of the honor scandal, no doubt about it, and General Goodpaster was the Superintendent that implemented all that.
He took a star off to come back, didn’t he? Isn’t that right?
Yeah, he did. He retired as a four-star, came back on active duty as a three-star.
Do you know any of those that were expelled?
And did they ever—since you were part of the select group that actually analyzed what had happened, did they ever resent your participation in that?
Yeah, there was some degree of animosity. I mean, there were threats to me as a first classman. This all happened in the summer between my Cow Year and my Firstie Year, all this internal review activity. I was selected to be a regimental commander, so I commanded the 2nd Regiment as a firstie, and there were threats against my safety and my well-being over the course of that year.
What kind of threats?
Oh, they’d throw in my locker notes that say, “We’re going to get you,” or that kind of stuff—it wasn’t like I was ever assaulted.
Did you fear that you would be?
No, I don’t think I ever walked around in fear. I acknowledged that there were people that didn’t like me. I remembered—I reminded everybody—that what they were going through wasn’t my problem. I didn’t do it to them. All I did was adjudicate it. In fact, I didn’t adjudicate, because after the internal review panel went through the process, it was turned over to honor boards to make the determination of what to do in that particular case.
And what was a blessing, I believe, to my class, is some folks had the option to return with the class of ’78, and a good portion of them did. And oh, by the way, some of those folks that came back in the class of ’78 are now general officers serving the United States Army. So I think the system had a degree of understanding and took particular cases case by case and let some folks come back.
Is there anyone who resents you to this day that you’re aware of?
No, I don’t see that. I mean, you’re never really sure what people feel, but once I walked out of the Academy, other than in conversations like this, it never really came up. Nobody ever confronted me on the streets of Fort Hood on my first duty assignment and said, “Why’d you do that to me?” That never happened.
So you are commissioned as a first lieutenant, and you choose which branch?
I was commissioned as a second lieutenant—you said first lieutenant—and I chose to be an engineer, which was a mistake. I chose to be an engineer—I was high enough in my class as a cadet. The conventional wisdom then was if you’re going to get out of the Army anyway, go into something that’ll give you some kind of marketable skill when you get out of the Army. And I had convinced myself as a cadet, like I told you, that I was only going to serve in the Army five years and then go do something else. So being an engineer seemed to be the right thing to do.
And I enjoyed being an engineer company commander—I did that a couple of times. But I realized early on that if I was going to be in the Army, I wanted to be the guy in charge. I wanted to be the supported commander, not the supporting commander. And as an engineer, you’re always the supporting commander. So after 10 years in service, I branch transferred to Armor. But my first duty assignment as an engineer officer was at Fort Hood, Texas, and I was there for six years as an engineer.
As an engineer. And had you ever been to Fort Hood before or been to Texas before?
Nope. That was all new to me. Candidly, I hadn’t been many places except for Hamilton, Ohio, and West Point, because we didn’t do a lot of traveling. Seeing as how your parents worked at the paper mill, you didn’t have much money, so there wasn’t a lot of traveling going on. So no, I’d never been in the state of Texas.
I went to Fort Hood, Texas, because Walt Ulmer went to Fort Hood, Texas. I saw Walt Ulmer as the Commandant go through the difficult time with my class, and my class still loves Walt Ulmer, and he was indeed sent away from his position as a Commandant and sent out to Fort Hood, Texas, to be the ADC of the 2nd Armored Division. So when I had a chance to choose my location, I chose Fort Hood to be next to Walt Ulmer.
So now we’re six years there, so really around 1982.
’83 when I left.
And so we’re still in the midst of a Cold War dynamic.
And a post-Vietnam War/Cold War dynamic, so, as you say, you were—the eyes of the Army really were on the Fulda Gap—is that right? Give me a quick characterization of what the threat level was, what you expected you might be involved with, and what your part would’ve been in it.
Yeah, we were still reeling as an army in the ’77 time frame from the effects of Vietnam. It was still out there.
That’s the days of the “Hollow Force” in the Navy or the Army, really, isn’t it?
Yeah, I mean, we had a relatively indisciplined force. I remember vividly as a lieutenant at Fort Hood, Texas, it was physically impossible to be the staff duty officer without doing a drug bust in the barracks, ’cause drugs were rampant and there was states of indiscipline that was almost unbelievable. So we were wrestling primarily at that time, in my mind, with an internal threat, and that’s trying to get the Army to become a disciplined force again.
And oh, by the way, to get the resources to do what you needed to do. Because you did find yourself—I mean, as a lieutenant in the 2nd Armored Division, I remember to this day, we physically ran out of money, in the third quarter of some fiscal year. And as a result of that, we couldn’t buy fuel, so we didn’t move any of our motorized vehicles for three months at Fort Hood, Texas, because we had no money to buy the fuel. That’s the state of play in the late ’70s.
Well it’s interesting, when you think that was the fragility of the force during that time. It was a point of great weakness for us—if we had been subject to a threat at that time, we may not have been able to meet it.
Oh, that’s true. I mean, we did a lot of moving to Europe. So, for example, I was only at Fort Hood for about six months when I went off on a Brigade 75 rotation. Brigade 75 and a Brigade 76, but Brigade 75 in Fort Hood is where they took an entire armored brigade and moved it to Germany for six months at a time, just to reinforce our presence in Germany. And we went to Grafenwöhr, Germany, as a brigade. I was a young engineer lieutenant at the time. And all of our exercises were focused on the Cold War and Fulda Gap and reinforcing blocking positions. That was what we talked about all the time—that was the threat of the day.
And in some respects, wasn’t that in response to what had happened in Vietnam? The notion of fighting insurgencies was, at that time, thought to be something of the past. We’ve done that, we didn’t do it well, we don’t want to do it again—is that right?
Well, that’s right. I don’t recall in my young years, as a commissioned officer, having a conversation about insurgencies—I don’t remember that.
I do remember, all the way up until the time when the Wall came tumbling down, thinking all the time about this 10-foot giant that was the Warsaw Pact soldier that was going to come across and rape and pillage everything that we held dear. I remember talking about that all the time.
And in some respects, that was a myth, right?
Well, in retrospect it was. I mean, we thought that our threat was much stronger than he proved to be over time. We did believe that. Now whether that was intentional or not intentional, I’m not sure, but it sure made us spend a lot of time thinking about how we were going to fight the Russian hordes.
So you’re at Fort Hood from ’77, basically, till ’82-’83, somewhere around there.
Yeah, I commanded two companies—an engineer bridge company in the 2nd Armored Division, a combat engineer company. And after three years of company command, in June of ’83, I left Fort Hood, Texas.
So an engineer bridge company, an engineer combat company—tell me the distinction. For those who don’t know, watching this, what is an engineer bridge company? What does that mean?
Yeah. Back in the day, each division, armored division, had the inherent capability of crossing water obstacles, and those were bridge companies. So there was one bridge company in every division, and I commanded the bridge company for the 2nd Armored Division. And in my company, we had these contraptions called mobile assault bridges, which were huge platforms—12-foot wide, 12-foot tall, and 42-feet long—that would literally drive into the river.
What were they made of?
Aluminum, something—something allowed them to have some buoyancy in the water. But they would literally drive into the river, and then the bridges would rotate, and we’d connect the bridges to make the bridge across the river.
And then disassemble it afterwards, right?
And then disassemble it after, and then get back out of the water and follow the division to the next place there was a water crossing. And if you studied the terrain in Germany, where you thought you were going to fight, you realized you had a whole bunch of water obstacles to cross, as history will tell you. So we spent a lot of time practicing river crossing operations.
Give me a sense of what kind of time and effort’s involved in constructing these bridges and then deconstructing.
Yeah. In an ideal world, I had 24 platforms, normally use about 12 of them to create the bridge. And in the ideal world, from the time you hit water to the time the bridge in, was about 45 minutes. It was pretty quick, it was pretty quick—depending on the current, the gap size, all this stuff, it was pretty quick. But I learned early on as a lieutenant, we never live in an ideal world.
I took command of the bridge company unexpectedly. There was a brigadier general named Doc Bahnsen, who’s a West Point officer, class of ’56, who’s one of my mentors, and I went up to interview to be Doc Bahnsen’s aide.
I was a platoon leader for 24 months—I loved that. I was an Assistant S-3 for about a year—that was okay. And then the battalion commander said, “I’m going to make you the battalion adjutant.” And I was miserable being the battalion adjutant. I was. Every day was misery, ’cause I’m a guy that likes to plan his day and then execute his plan. As an adjutant, as soon as you came in, the phone rang, and there was some problem, you were chasing problems.
So four months into it, I went to my battalion commander and I said, “I can’t take this anymore.” He said, “Well, we got a requirement to nominate somebody to be Doc Bahnsen’s aide.” Doc was the ADC of the 2nd Armored Division. I said, “Well, it beats being an Adjutant, so I’ll go interview.” So I walked into Doc Bahnsen’s office, I saluted, “Lieutenant Lynch reporting.” He said, “What are you here for, Lieutenant?” I said, “Sir, I’m here to interview to be your aide.” He says, “Why do you want to be my aide?” I said, “I don’t want to be your aide. I just don’t want to be the Adjutant.” He said, “Get out of my office!” And I figured my career was over with. I said, “I don’t want to be your aide. I want to be a company commander.” And then I got kicked out of the office.
So as I was walking from the division headquarters to the battalion headquarters, and I was contemplating my future, which was pretty bleak at the time—
Now did you think you just made a mistake there, or you just wanted to be frank with him?
No, I wanted to be frank with him. For those who know me, I’ve made a career—whether it’s good or bad—of being frank.
Saying what you think.
Saying what I think. In that particular case—I don’t want to be your aide, I just don’t want to be the Adjutant. I want to be a company commander. He called the battalion commander while I was walking back and said, “Make Lynch a company commander. Anybody with that much courage”—he used a profanity that I won’t use on the oral history—“with that much courage deserves to be a company commander.”
Coincidentally, one of the company commanders had decided to resign from the Army, so three days later, I became the bridge company commander in the 17th Engineer Battalion. That’s how quick that turned.
And then about three weeks later, we moved off to Germany on a REFORGER exercise, and the division was crossing the Leine River in northern Germany as part of this exercise, and it was my responsibility to get the division across. And I told you, it should’ve taken 45 minutes to put that bridge in, and it ended up taking about 10 hours, based on everything going wrong. Murphy was all over the place, and things weren’t working, soldiers didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing, the river was—
What goes on—the terrain can shock you—is that what happened?
Yeah, we didn’t have a—that’s one of the problems. We didn’t have a good place to get in. You had to have a good place to get in. We couldn’t find a good place to get in. The equipment wasn’t working properly. The soldiers weren’t properly trained. But all I know, for that 10-hour period of time, I got yelled at as a lieutenant by everybody in the division that outranked me, and that’s a lot of people. ’Cause they’re all trying to get across that damn river, and I was the only guy who could get them across. So finally we got across.
So obviously after that, I spent a lot of time training that bridge company to be able to be more effective in river crossing.
Well, that’s the whole point of training, right? To figure that out.
Yeah. And we did—we did well over time, and I had command of the bridge company for about 16 months.
And then you were commander of a combat engineering brigade company, is that right?
Yeah, I walked back up to General Bahnsen’s office—he’s still the ADC. I salute, “Captain Lynch reporting.” He said, “Now what do you want, Lynch?” he said. I said, “Well I’m here to tell you I’m leaving Fort Hood, Texas. I’ve been here for four and a half years, Engineer Branch says I’ve got to go somewhere else. They say I can’t stay any longer.” He said, “I’ll fix that.”
So while I’m in his office, he called the Engineer Branch chief and said, “I want Lynch to be a company commander. I want to put him in command again—he’s that good”—or “he needs that much more work,” whatever it was. The Engineer Branch said, “Sir, he can’t stay. He’s already been here four and a half years.” While I was there, this brigadier general called everybody in the chain of command, till he got to the two-star level, and then the two-star finally said, “Okay, Doc, if you want him, he can stay.” So I went in the command of my second company, a combat engineer company, again because of Brigadier General Doc Bahnsen.
And then 36 months of continuous command taught me how to take care of soldiers, and what I learned as a lieutenant and a captain I use to this day. So one of my mentors—you talk about mentorship—is Doc Bahnsen.
So you say you learned how to take care of your soldiers. What does that mean?
Taking care of soldiers is an action. I get it all the time. People say, “I love soldiers”—but their actions don’t reflect their words. And the kids see that. The Specialist, it takes him about 15 minutes to see whether or not you’re a caring leader or whether it’s just smoke and mirrors. Are you worried about him, or are you worried about yourself? So what I learned from Doc Bahnsen, it was, leadership is a contact sport. And I spent a lot of time, then and now, being with soldiers, hugging soldiers, talking to soldiers, listening to soldiers. I’ve called a parent a day every day my entire military career. That’s what engaged leadership is. Today as I was walking—
What do you mean, called a parent?
Called a parent. Today I’m walking as a three-star General—I see a cadet sitting there, got a phone on his—he’s talking to somebody on the phone. I said, “Cadet, who you talking to?” He said, “I’m talking to my dad.” I said, “Let me talk to him.”
And what I do when I talk to the parent, I, first off, I thank them for the service of their son or their daughter, I thank them for their support, and I ask them, “Is there anything we can do to help?” As a lieutenant, I learned how important that was, because if you want to know about Johnny, your new soldier, ask Johnny’s mom, ’cause Johnny’s mom will tell you. And that way, you’ve got a sense of whether or not you’re moving in the right direction taking care of that young soldier.
But it’s about being with them. I mean, I love—my passion is being with soldiers. That’s my passion, and I learned that as a young company commander under Doc Bahnsen’s mentorship. I don’t walk—to this day, it takes me a long time to get from Point A to Point B ’cause I don’t walk by a soldier without shaking his hand. I refuse to do that. Takes a while, takes a while to get through the group, if you’re doing that.
So now you’re a company commander for—I mean, you’re a young engineering company—
Yeah, combat engineering company.
I’m sorry. What does that mean?
Combat engineers support maneuver units—battalions and brigades—with mobility and counter-mobility operations. So combat engineer companies have the equipment and the skill set to breach obstacles—allow the maneuver force to go through—or they have the skill set and the equipment to emplace obstacles— minefields, barriers. You have bulldozers, you have bucket loaders, you have all sorts of things that allow you to do mobility and counter-mobility operations for maneuver units. So I was the Tiger Engineer Company commander who supported 1st Brigade of the 2nd Armored Division, Phil Mallory’s brigade, and indeed, we worked all the time to do those skill sets, that task.
Again, still in Germany, effectively—that was where your operation was—
Yeah, we’re at Fort Hood, Texas, but every operation is about Germany. When we go to Germany, we’ve got to do this. When you go—and we all had this General Defensive Plan, the GDP, and you had a pretty good idea if the balloon went up, where you were going to go. So you tried to replicate that—in your training, you tried to replicate that.
So now we’re in mid-1980s and late 1980s.
Yeah, May of ’83 is when I walked out of Fort Hood, Texas.
Oh, okay, so both of those company commander positions were within your time at Fort Hood then.
Yeah, my first assignment at Fort Hood was almost six years long, even though your normal rotation is after three years.
So then from Fort Hood you go where?
I go off to the Armor advanced course. The most important thing to happen to me—
So you’re going to leave engineering now—is that right?
Okay, I’m sorry.
The most important thing that happened to me at Fort Hood, Texas, is marrying my wife. My wife was the Director of Parks and Recreation in Killeen, Texas. I have this passion for sports, one of which happened to be softball, and we were registering—we was trying to register—my softball team in the local league, and she was the Director of Parks and Recreation.
Her dad retired as a Master Sergeant, her mom was a Sergeant E-5 in the Women’s Army Corps—just the opposite of the Lynch family. See, in the Lynch family, you had the private who got kicked out of the Army. In the Cockerham family—that’s her maiden name—the dad was a Master Sergeant, the mom was a Sergeant E-5. She’s got five brothers and sisters who traveled all around the world as a military family.
Her dad had told her—her dad was since deceased—but her dad had told her, “Whatever you do, don’t marry a G.I.” So getting through that barrier was difficult. I spent $690 on flowers trying to convince that girl from Killeen, Texas, to go out with me. Finally she consented, and then we were married while I was in command of my second company at Fort Hood, Texas. That’s the most important thing that happened to me in Texas.
So from Fort Hood, you started to say, you go where?
Yeah, I go off to the armor officer advanced course. Back then, and today, we take people from different branches and send them to different advanced courses, just to give them exposure. So when I had the choice between going to the Engineer advanced course or going to the Armor advanced course, I chose to go to the Armor advanced course, and that was at Fort Knox, Kentucky. And that was in—
Were you tired of Engineering—you just didn’t want to do it anymore?
No, I mean, I loved being a combat engineer—I loved being a company commander of engineers. But as I looked at the engineer battalion commanders, all they did then—and they do now—is they take their subordinate units out and put them direct support to some maneuver unit, and then they become a staff officer. So I couldn’t for the life of me envision me being happy being somebody’s staff officer the rest of my career, I just couldn’t see it.
Engineers are critical. There’s a book out saying, “Where are the damn engineers?” You can’t go anywhere without engineers. On the fields of battle in Iraq, I took the engineers and spent a—they had a special place for me. So it wasn’t that I was tired of being an engineer. I just didn’t see my future as an engineer officer.
So when I went to the Armor advanced course, I started hanging out with armor officers all the time. While I was at the Armor advanced course, I called the Engineer Branch and said, “I want to go to Germany and command some more companies,” and they said, “There’s no way. You’ve already been company commander twice. You’ve been at Fort Hood for six years. So we’re going to make you a recruiter in Dayton, Ohio.” I said, “I don’t want to be a recruiter in Dayton, Ohio. Do I have any other options?” He said, “Well, there’s a guy named General Thurman, Max Thurman,” who was the TRADOC Commander at the time, “and he’s looking for captains to send off to graduate school to study this thing called robotics. So if you’re interested in robotics, we can send you to Stanford, MIT, or Carnegie-Mellon right out of the advanced course.” I actually put down the phone, I got a dictionary, I looked up the term “robotics” to figure out what it was. And all I knew was going to grad school to study robotics was going to be better than being a recruiter in Dayton, Ohio, so I said, “Okay.”
So the Army sent me from the advanced course to MIT to study mechanical engineering with a focus on robotics. And then, when I got finished with grad school, I came back to Fort Knox. So I’d been with Armor folks for so long—as they say, if you hang out with ducks, eventually you’re going to look like a duck—that at one point in time, I asked to be transferred to Armor. And then, I’ll tell you the story, but one of my mentors made that happen.
Let’s back up—and tell me what robotics is, and what you learned while at MIT.
And I have a passion to this day about robotics. I left MIT in 1985 to become the Robotics Project Officer at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in Combat Developments. And to this day, everywhere I go, I advocate the use of the technology and us advancing the technology.
The battlefield is a dangerous place, as you well know. And on the fields of battle as a division commander, 153 soldiers died on a place on a battlefield that I placed them, and I got to live with that the rest of my life. And that’s a burden that I carry to this day. About half of those soldiers died on a place where they didn’t need to be, because we could’ve put unmanned systems there in their place. Right now, we’ve evolved unmanned aero vehicles to the point where they’re invaluable on the battlefield, but we still haven’t got to the point where we put out unmanned ground vehicles.
So what I studied at the Academy—or correction, at MIT—was how can we take robotic vehicle technology and develop an unmanned ground vehicle, so indeed you have the capability of replacing men on the battlefield. And that’s what it was all about.
But you said you lost 153 soldiers.
What was the situation again?
Well, the 3rd Division, when the President [George W. Bush] decided to surge forces into Iraq, the 3rd Division was part of that surge. And we took a six-month training window that we thought we had to go to northern Iraq, and that got truncated from six months to six weeks to go into southern Iraq as part of the surge.
So we went to a portion of Iraq in the southern belts of Baghdad, in the southern provinces, where there hadn’t been any U.S. presence—any kind of permanent presence. There had been sporadic presence, where we went in and did something and we went out, but the surge gave us the troops to put people there in a permanent presence. So in major combat operation over a six-month period of time, in which we killed or captured 6,000 members of the insurgency, 153 of my soldiers died on the place in the battlefield I placed them.
I went to 153 memorial services in theater, and if you go to my desk in the Pentagon now, next to my Bible are 153 laminated cards with the pictures of our fallen heroes. And I look at them, and I think about them, and I pray about them and their families all the time.
This is a burden to you.
It’s a clear burden to me. And it’s a burden to all leaders like me. One of the reasons I’m passionate about my current job is General Casey has this program we started two years ago called The Survivor Outreach Services Program, which is intended to ensure that the families of the fallen know that we haven’t forgotten. So my wife and I spend a lot of time with Gold Star families in ensuring that their needs are being met, because they paid the ultimate cost – they lost their loved one on the fields of battle, and we got to make sure they know we haven’t forgotten them.
Now you don’t feel that you made mistakes that led to the death of these 153?
No, not at all.
But you do feel that if the science of robotics had been more developed and more in practice, that you could’ve saved the lives of these soldiers?
Yeah, I don’t feel that, I know that. Many of our soldiers are being killed by the enemy’s weapon of choice, which are IEDs—Improvised Explosive Devices—and many of those soldiers are being killed on their routes in Iraq that the enemies placed these IEDs on. And a lot of those functions that the human being was doing, like route clearance, could’ve been done by an unmanned vehicle. And yeah, we’d have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, but we wouldn’t have lost any soldiers. That can be done. The technology allows us to do that today. And that’s why I find myself continuing to advocate in the acquisition business applying our money to that technology so we can take our soldiers out of harm’s way.
Let’s go back again to our chronology. We have only about five minutes before we have to stop on this particular episode, but I hope you’ll come back—
By all means, yeah.
So after doing your turn at MIT, you then go to Fort Knox—and what happens at Fort Knox?
At Fort Knox—now we’re from ’85 to ’88 time frame—the Commanding General there was a guy named Tom Tait—renowned armor officer. He was the major general in charge of Fort Knox, Kentucky. And I worked in the Combat Developments to pursue robotic vehicle technology. So it was really working in the acquisition business to advocate the development of technology to apply technology on the battlefield.
While I was there, I got involved in a variety of other programs, and on one occasion, I had to fly to TRADOC to brief General Shoffner, who was one of the general officers of TRADOC, on a Cavalry program. And I’m flying with General Tait, and I’m in Class A’s because I was required to do the briefing in Class A’s.
So I give this briefing to General Shoffner, in the presence of General Tait, and Shoffner said, “It’s about Cavalry stuff.” Shoffner says, “Great brief, let’s do that,” turns to Tom and says, “Well, why do you have an engineer officer working on this?” Tom says, “I can fix that.” And on the flight back, he leaned over and says, “You want to be an armor officer?” I said, “Sir, I’ve been trying to be an armor officer now for nine years, and the system keeps telling me ‘no’”—’cause I had asked many times to branch transfer, and everybody kept telling me “no.” And in fact, I came out below the zone to Major as an engineer officer, which might reflect I was doing okay as an engineer officer. On the flight back, Tom says, “You want to be an armor officer?” I said, “I do.” We landed, and from his office, in my presence, he called the Armor Branch chief and said, “If you don’t make Lynch an armor officer, you’re fired.” And the next day, I was an armor officer.
I was escorting George Patton, [IV]—the son, obviously— around Fort Knox, Kentucky. I’m in Class A’s. I’m still an engineer. We get a call to go to General Tait’s office. I walk into General Tait’s office with General Patton, and there’s my wife, General Tom Tait, and General Butch Funk, who’s another mentor of mine, who happened to be a one-star at the time. And they had this big grin on their face. And I don’t know why I’d been summoned to the CG’s office, but I’ve been summoned there for a branch transfer ceremony. And in the presence of General Patton, Sarah and General Tait took off my engineer tassels and put on Armor insignia. And Sarah put it on upside-down, so General Funk had to turn it back around so it was right. And then I became an armor officer based on that intervention of General Tait.
So the theme that’s most the important to me that I tell the youngsters about is mentorship. I was at Fort Hood, Texas, for six years—three years a company commander – because of Brigadier General John C. Bahnsen, and I branch transferred because of the personal intervention of Major General Tom Tait. And that’s why, as a general officer, I deal with individuals. I don’t deal with large organizations, even though I command an organization of 120,000 people—but it’s 120,000 individuals. So as I run across somebody who’s got a situation they need help with, by God, I’m going to intervene and help them.
It’s interesting how—to that very point—I know that I worked briefly on an OEMA project over here in the Social Sciences Department on the development of the Officer Corps, and the degree to which mentorship is a critical aspect of how officers are schooled. It’s who they see as who they want to emulate, right?
Well, let me tell you two stories on this, ’cause I think they’re important. When we had this mass exodus of captains—when General Shinseki was the Chief of Staff of the Army, he formed this blue ribbon panel to study why captains were leaving the Army. And I was on this blue ribbon panel. And we were talking to all these captains getting out of the Army, and they said two things, “I’m leaving for two things.” The first thing they said is, “Nobody’s talking to us anymore.” It was clear that they didn’t have any mentor. Nobody was sitting them down and saying, “Okay, let’s talk about you and your future.” There was nobody doing that. So we had lost the art of mentorship as an Army. We got too damn busy. I mean, I’m convinced that email to this day is an evil thing ’cause it’s not communicating, it’s typing and sending, and people think they’re communicating. It’s this—it’s face-to-face mentorship. So we lost that art. Now we’ve been trying as an Army to reinstill that.
Another of my mentors, Fred Franks, who retired as a four-star, he said, “A mentor is somebody who listens, who’s accessible, and who truly cares.” Those three techniques are things that you’ve got to practice every day. So the art of mentorship is critical to our Army. I’m also very proud of the fact that all the officers who were in my battalion when I commanded 1-8 Cav completed their term of service and retired or are still on active duty as commissioned officers, except for those officers who I chose to leave the service. Because that first impression that the youngster has, that lieutenant walking into the battalion—if he had a good first experience, by God, he’s staying forever. If he had a lousy first experience, you’ve lost him. It’s all about mentorship.
Why don’t we stop here, ’cause I know we can pick up there.
Okay. I apologize. I tend to talk too much. I’m sure you—we only got through my lieutenant years.
Well, but I’m going to make you promise to come back.
Yeah, oh yeah.
Because I think it’s really, really important. I think this is great stuff, and I think this is really important for the cadets, particularly, to hear this. So I—