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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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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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