One of 87 living Medal winners says the medal is an honor and a burden.
Sitting on a couch inside his suburban Chicago home, Al Lynch, at the age of 65, doesn't give off the appearance of being a superhero. But as your parents tell you when you're young, appearances can be deceiving.
On December 15, 1967, Lynch, who was an Army battlefield radio operator, carried three wounded soldiers to safety in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. He then single-handedly defended them, for several hours, against an advancing enemy force. For his intrepidity in battle and his disregard for his own safety, President Nixon, in 1970, awarded Lynch the nation's highest medal for battlefield bravery, The Medal of Honor. "Early on, one of the recipients said that earning the medal is the easy part. Wearing (sic "it") is the hard part."
Lynch says there's a heavy responsibility placed upon the 87 living members of this elite society. " "This medal is more than just me. It's bigger than me…This is a symbol of the greatness of the men and women that serve our country."
He says the older he gets, the more he understands the weight of the honor. Years ago, he says, he couldn't comprehend why people treated this "punk kid from Dolton" so differently. "When I first got it…I was at a VFW Hall. I was having a couple of beers and hanging out and they had a big dinner for me and all that, and I'm at a table with all these people, and I went to say, just make some comment, and everyone looked at me like the Man from the Mountain is going to speak."
Lynch's transformation to the top came with great pain. He was severely bullied as a school kid and says he often walked a lonely path in a traditional family upbringing. Now retired, Lynch spends his free time talking to school kids about how to handle bullies. He also volunteers with the Vietnam Veterans of America.
At many of of his speaking engagements, he'll proudly wear his Medal of Honor. "You don't wear it for yourself after awhile. You wear it for those who should have gotten it but didn't." A large percentage of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients are awarded the medal posthumously.
On Tuesday, however, for the first time in about 40 years, a new hero received the Medal of Honor in person. During a White House ceremony, President Obama draped the signature blue ribbon and its iconic medal over the head and neck of Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta. Giunta received the Medal of Honor for his bravery in combat in Afghanistan.
In the coming weeks, Giunta will take a nationwide victory lap of sorts, bringing the Medal of Honor along with him. As first reported by NBC Chicago, Giunta asked to make Chicago one of his stops, partly because he's a huge fan of the Chicago Bears. Lynch said he'd love meet Giunta, but doesn't intend to put in a request to meet him. "I'm not going to bother him. He's being pulled from pillar to post. Come here. Go there. Do this. Do that. If we meet, that would be great. It would be an honor to meet him."
If there's anyone, however, who knows what Giunta's future might hold, it's Al Lynch. Lynch predicts the spotlight will shine even brighter on Giunta, because it's been so long since a living hero received the Nation of Honor. "Everyone just wants to talk to you. It's almost like getting a scalp on a belt…I only hear from some guys when they want me to be at an event."
Lynch says Giunta holds the key to his own future. He says it can go of three ways for Giunta: he can buy into all the media attention and "think he's all that and a bag of chips." He says the second option is to try and resume his old life in Hiawatha, Iowa which "you're never going to be able to do." He advises that the best path is to embrace the medal, find balance and "stick to your core values."