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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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For Chuck Hagel, the day he reported for duty in Vietnam as a young private first class is seared in his memory. It was December 1967, and the heat was oppressive. So, too, were the smells. 

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“I’ll never forget, ever, the feeling I had walking off that plane,” Mr. Hagel told biographer Charlyne Berens. “The humidity and the stench – I was physically sick to my stomach.” 

Then there was latrine duty, Hagel’s first job in his tour. He collected the 50-gallon barrels from the latrines, to burn the waste. “You can imagine that smell,” Hagel told Ms. Beren, author of 2006's "Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward" and an associate dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I didn’t exactly spend my first day as a great warrior.” 

These are the sort of wretched jobs that enlisted troops tend to recall as an almost-pleasant prelude to the fighting they must later do. For Private First Class Hagel, the ferocious combat was soon to come. 

“Both of us,” Hagel’s brother told an interviewer in 1997, “were very, very good at killing.”

President Obama’s nominee to be the next secretary of Defense, if confirmed, would be the first Vietnam veteran to head the Pentagon. Hagel would also be the first enlisted soldier to hold the job.

His combat experience intrigues many current veterans, who believe it could make Hagel one of the more qualified defense secretaries America has ever had.

“It’s a total game-changer,” says Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who was a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader serving in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. “It’s hard for civilians to understand what that means. If you think of enlisted and officers, it’s the difference between union and management. To have someone come up as a private is like someone coming up through a mail room – he understands it, and every level in between.” 

Moreover, Mr. Rieckoff adds, “being an enlisted infantry grunt is one of the single most dangerous jobs in a war – it’s the backbone of the Army.

“He knows what it’s like to pull the trigger, to write letters home from a foreign land, to see his friend killed. I think it’s an indispensable quality to a country finishing two long wars.”

Battle scars

One night at a remote jungle outpost in Vietnam, Hagel recalls waking two fellow squad members with his hands on their mouths to keep them from making a sound before they crawled away on their hands and knees to escape Viet Cong patrols just feet away. 

The US military had night-vision telescopes at the time, but the enlisted soldiers weren’t allowed to take them deep into the jungle – commanders feared that they might fall into enemy hands if US troops were captured. Much like troops in the early days of the Iraq war, Hagel grappled with the frustrations of limited equipment.

Just a couple of months later, in March 1968, Hagel would learn, again and again, what it meant to endure the wounds of war. It was north of Saigon that Hagel and his brother Tom’s squad was ambushed, and the brothers were subjected to their first battle scars. 

Hagel was hit with shrapnel from a mine explosion. His brother came to his aid. 

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