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.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama smiles at his nominee for Defense secretary, former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel at the White House on Monday.

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. 

“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. 

“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.

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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