Once a month, a group of enlisted service members files into a room for lunch. The man who greets them once wore the same uniform—in many cases, with a lower rank on the shoulder.
Now, he’s the secretary of defense.
“It’s always one of my highlights every month,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a March interview with On Patrol. “I go around the table and I ask them ‘Why’d you do this? Why’d you get into this business?’ And there are variations [but] almost all of them come back to [a sense of purpose].”
It’s why Hagel joined, though his choices were limited at the time. A 20-year-old Nebraskan who had three unsuccessful stints in college, Hagel walked into the selective service office in Platte County in 1967, draft notice in hand, and announced he was volunteering to join the Army. As he tells the story, the draft board offered him a few outs—get back into college in the next six months, or at least come back in a few weeks after you’ve had time to think about what you’re doing.
Hagel had already made up his mind. He felt the call of service like the generations of men in his family before him. And he needed structure in his life and saw the military as the best way to get it.
Hagel was on a bus to Fort Bliss, Texas, for basic training that April.
“Different time, of course, because these young men and women today have choices. It’s all-volunteer,” he said. “I’m not sure everybody who went into service in those days—or were drafted—would give the same explanation.”
If you’ve read an interview with Hagel about Vietnam in the last 20 years, you know he frames things by exact dates. A poised politician who represented Nebraska for two terms in the United States Senate, Hagel can talk as dispassionately as a historian about being the guy who “broke the jungle” on point patrol while slowly settling into detail-laden accounts of battles with the Viet Cong that paint vivid, though matter-of-fact, pictures of war.
But not everything is quantifiable.
“Smells take you back [to Vietnam],” Hagel said. “Heat takes you back. Still, when I am out in areas where there is a lot of undergrowth and vegetation and trees or any tropical country I’m in … that takes you back.”
After basic training at Fort Bliss and Advanced Individual Training School at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Hagel had another chance to skip Vietnam, getting assigned to a post in Germany as one of a handful of soldiers trained to operate then-top-secret ground-to-air shoulder-fired missiles.
Again, he chose to skip what appeared to be the easy way out.
“Obviously they were concerned that I was running away from something,” Hagel told the Veterans History Project back in 2002, adding that a chaplain, a psychiatrist and two officers questioned him before allowing him to change his assignment. “I never ever questioned [my choice]. I saw it first of all as a sense of purpose, responsibility, patriotism. … I never looked back.”
Hagel arrived in Vietnam on December 4, 1967, to what he describes as stench and heat he’d never experienced. A private in the United States Army, his assignment was eventually changed on the ground to a 9th Infantry Division unit that needed infantrymen after suffering significant losses in prior months.
A short time later, his brother Tom graduated high school and was drafted into the Army. The Hagel brothers requested transfers into the other’s unit, knowing it was unlikely either request would be granted. But just a few months into his deployment, the older Hagel was pulled out of the jungle and sent back to base camp to pick up Tom, who’d been reassigned to his unit.
Together, the brothers—a rarity in a time where the military prohibited siblings from serving together in an effort to spare families multiple casualties in the same conflict—led their unit through the jungle for the rest of 1968.
“My brother and I both were always on point,” Hagel said. “We rotated on and off point. One essentially held the compass and the other guy broke the jungle.
“We just had confidence in ourselves that we weren’t going to lead our guys into the ambush or we weren’t going to lead our guys into trouble. And second, I think that’s probably the way we were raised. If you’re going to be doing something, take responsibility.”
The brothers were injured March 28, 1968—one of the few times they weren’t leading the pack—when the point team for their company-sized patrol tripped a wire embedded in a stream that set off Claymore mines in the trees around them.
“I was as afraid that night as I think I’ve ever been,” Hagel told the Veterans History Project. “Because it was dark. And when it gets dark, it is dark. And how many other booby traps you’re going to walk into that you can’t see? We almost walked into another one. My brother, Tom, saved us.”
The Hagel brothers reclaimed the point position and guided the company out of the jungle, but not before Tom Hagel spotted a hand grenade hanging by a wire and defused it.
The nightmare of an evening—for which Hagel was awarded one of his two Purple Hearts—led to the brothers sitting in a Vietnamese clearing in the dead of night with a lot to think about while they waited for a medevac. The future defense secretary had two blown eardrums, facial burns and a chest full of shrapnel—some of which remains today because it was too close to his heart to remove.
“That very, very vivid memory … it’s still very real to me … sitting on top of that tank waiting for medevac helicopters to take my brother Tom and me out of there about 2:30 in the morning to a hospital, sticks with me every day,” he said.
In the wake of the ordeal, Hagel made a promise to himself—a promise that he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to fulfill.
“If I was ever in a position where I could influence anything, I wanted to do what I could to prevent a war,” he said. “I’m an optimist, but I’m a realist. And I understand the brutality of the world, and I understand that sometimes force is required.
“But if you’re going to use force, you better make damn sure you understand what the objectives are.”
Unlike World War II, no veteran who served in Vietnam has won the American presidency. And with time slowly winding down on that generation’s political careers, Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry are two of the last with posts that fall within the line of presidential succession.
It’s influence Hagel didn’t envision having back when he was breaking the jungle.
“I never thought about it,” said Hagel, who is the first former enlisted service member to serve as defense secretary. “Obviously, when you’re in the service and you’re going through a war, you know—even at a callow, young age—that you don’t think too far beyond today or tomorrow. You know that’s going to be with you all your life.”
Hagel grew up around veterans, referring in the past to the American Legion and VFW halls as the centers of culture in the small Nebraska towns where he was raised. His father, Charlie Hagel—a tail gunner on bombers in the South Pacific—eventually shared his war stories with his sons through photos he took from his seat at the back of the plane. His grandfather fought in World War I.
As Hagel sees it, serving back then during a major war—and then heading back home to restart life—is just something American men expected.
But times and practices have changed.
“When I left Vietnam—from the time I got on that airplane at Ton Son Hut Air Base in Saigon to leave on December 4, 1968—48 hours later, I was out of the Army,” he said. “There were just abrupt separations. There wasn’t any counseling or anything.”
After his service, Hagel achieved significant wealth in the cellphone industry, served on several corporate boards, held elected office and even served as president of the USO from 1987 to 1990.
When Hagel assumed the top post of the Department of Defense on February 27, 2013, he inherited a fighting force of professionals. The troops who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan the last 13-plus years did so because they chose to join the military. Every one of them—from the nuclear submarine captains to the cooks—is a highly trained specialist.
In Hagel’s day, the same men who provided American muscle also occasionally mowed the lawns on base and peeled potatoes in the mess.
“They’re completely different universes today,” he said. “Each of our services [today] is a very, very professional service.
“The institutions not only really take pride in their people … but also how they treat their people. You can’t recruit or retain quality people—which any institution needs, especially a quality military—without taking care of them.”
And that’s one of Hagel’s focuses as he oversees the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan this year. With the redistribution of force levels back home—and a host of festering security problems abroad—Hagel understands his influence during the remainder of his tenure as Secretary of Defense will shape both the priorities and readiness of a recalibrating military.
He’s a long way from the jungles of Vietnam. But the lessons he learned there still instruct how he leads.
“Every decision I make as Secretary of Defense has an impact on our men and women in some way,” Hagel said. “[So] that promise I made to myself on that day in 1968 is with me every day, and it should be.”
Eric Brandner is the USO's director of story development.