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Chuck Hagel, Vietnam vet: Would time as a 'grunt' be a plus at Pentagon?

If confirmed by the Senate, Chuck Hagel would become the first Vietnam veteran – and the first enlisted soldier – to hold the post of Defense secretary. To many military veterans, that matters.

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“I could see blood on the front of his shirt, and I tore his shirt open and that’s when geysers of blood went up,” Tom Hagel, who was peppered with shrapnel himself, later recalled to Berens.

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One month later, the brothers were back to fighting, and next it was Tom – the turret gunner at the time – who was gravely injured when a roadside bomb blew up under his armored personnel carrier.

Hagel was sure his brother had been killed. He was “dead weight, blood pouring out of his ears,” he recalled in a 1997 interview with the Washington Post.

As Hagel tried to get his brother and others out to safety, ammunition stored in the vehicle blew up in his face. 

The brothers took their second trip to the hospital together, where Tom recovered and Chuck received salve and bandages for his face. It took a decade for the wounds to heal fully. Hagel still cannot grow a beard.

Speaking his mind

Hagel's experience in war will bring a vital perspective in relating to veterans of America’s current wars, Mr. Obama argued in announcing Hagel’s nomination this week.

“My frame of reference is geared toward the guy at the bottom who’s doing the fighting and the dying,” the president said at a press conference announcing the nomination Monday.

Those who have worked with him agree. “He understands personally the ugliness and horror of it,” says biographer Berens, in an interview with the Monitor.

That will make him a better leader for a country whose troops are recovering from two long wars, Rieckhoff adds. “When you can walk into a room and say, ‘I’ve been through basic training, I was wounded myself,' that gives you a visceral understanding of those responsible for executing the orders.” 

As deputy head of the Veterans Administration (VA) under President Ronald Reagan, Hagel resigned in 1982 after 10 months on the job because the director, Robert Nimmo, had compared the chemical defoliant Agent Orange to “teenage acne” and complained that Vietnam vets were “a bunch of crybabies,” Hagel told biographer Berens. 

In 1987, Hagel took over the USO (United Service Organizations), which he took from bankruptcy in February of that year to a surplus by December. 

He cut the staff and gave raises to those who remained. “One woman I interviewed said that everyone was just astounded. He told them that he wanted to keep the really good people, so the ones he thought were making essential contributions, he gave them extra money so they’d stay,” Berens said in an interview.

“My impression of him after spending many hours interviewing him and people around him is that he sets high expectations – he wants people to do their best and more – but that he’s quite cheerful about the whole thing and very quick to compliment people when they do well.”

Such management experience is important, says Rieckhoff, who points in particular to Hagel’s championing of the new GI bill. “But there are few management jobs more important than leading an infantry squad in combat,” he adds. 

Hagel's military service during a time of war also taught him to speak his mind, Reickhoff believes. “When you’re alone on issues doesn’t mean you’re wrong.” 

Hagel opposed the 2007 "surge" of US troops in Iraq, a product, many believe, of struggling to come to terms with the sacrifice of his fellow troops in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. “I got a sense that there was just so much dishonesty in it,” he said later about the US government during the Vietnam era. “And it was chewing these kids up.”

Many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appreciate that first-hand acknowledgement of the cost of war, Rieckhoff adds. 

“I don’t want to create levels of citizenship – this isn’t 'Starship Troopers,' ” he says. “But there is a different level of connection that you have to this country once you’ve been asked to die for it.” 

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