In His Own Words: Hagel on Vietnam, Walking the Point, Leadership…and the “Little Guys”

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Library of Congress

Sergeant Chuck Hagel in Vietnam 45 years ago.

Ten years ago, Chuck Hagel – then a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska – sat down for an extended interview with the folks over at the Library of Congress for their Veterans History Project.

You can bet Senate supporters and detractors alike are combing through the lengthy session to arm themselves for Hagel’s Jan. 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But given the thumbs-up of the nomination Tuesday by Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., it would appear that Hagel is likely on his way to becoming the nation’s 24th defense secretary.

As you read through some of his comments below – and much more, at the full interview, here – long-time defense dweebs are struck by one thing: there hasn’t been someone with this perspective in charge of the Pentagon since it opened 70 years ago this week.

On growing up:

We were raised in little towns in Nebraska where the local Legion club and the VFW hall were really the centers of the universe. All the social activity and patriotic activity emanated from those Legion and VFW clubs. My father served in the South Pacific during World War II with the 13th Army Air Corps. He was a radio operator/tail gunner on a B-25 bomber overseas two and a half years so saw a lot of combat. My grandfather was in World War I.

So we were a family that grew up with the blue Legionnaire’s cap and a sense of responsibility and a sense of commitment to this country. You didn’t think about it. If the country was at war or if there was a need, everybody served, and you just anticipated your service.

On joining the Army:

Well, I — I tried college. I tried three colleges actually. It was not in the best interest of those academic institutions to keep me, nor in my best interest, so I don’t have a — a academic record that would be or certainly anyone would want to emulate.

I worked for radio stations, did different jobs in and out of school. And I was called home one day by the draft board and said, “Young man, you’ve got six months to get back in college. We have levies, and they’re big levies. They’re coming down,” as you know, ’67, ’68, the big buildup.

And I sat before the draft board and said, “No. I think the best thing for me is to go in the Army. It may not be the best thing for the Army, but I think that’s the way to get all this straightened out.”

I was the oldest of four boys. I mentioned earlier my father passed away, and I just was not coming together the way I should come together. There was a war going on in Vietnam. I felt a sense of some responsibility. So I said, “No. Let’s — let’s go.” And so I volunteered for the draft, went in the Army and celebrated my 21st birthday down at White Sands Missile Range.

His Military Occupational Specialty:

I had the most famous of all, 11-Bravo, that which is the infantryman MOS, which I didn’t fight that. I thought that was — if you’re going to be in the Army, you want to be a warrior.

I didn’t think it was very romantic and heroic to be a cook, although cooks are important. But I was glad to — and very proud actually to be assigned as an infantryman. And that’s what I was all the way through.

But he could have done something different:

I was assigned to go to the middle — to the midrange, at that time, top-secret Redeye missile gun course. They had selected 10 of us in the Army units across the country. This was the first shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile that was all top secret.

And I was going to Germany after they trained us, and we would all be moved into NATO units over there. The Russians were not supposed to know about this…

Then we were sent to Fort Bliss — or Fort Dix, New Jersey, where we were to process out to Germany. And that’s where I took my orders down to the processing station and handed them in, said I’d like to go to Vietnam.

And at that point, there was a hush in the orderly room and said, “Young man, sit down.”

And a chaplain came out. A psychiatrist came out. We had two majors come out. Took me aside. And obviously, they were concerned that I was running away from something.

And I don’t think you probably found that many guys that would come in with orders to Germany and say, “I want to go to Vietnam.”

And we — we talked for about three hours and what the motives were. So they said, “All right. We’ll take you off — off the manifest, and you stay here…”

I volunteered to go to Vietnam, which all my friends thought I was out of my mind, that I’d had too much of that Tijuana tequila when I — when I did it, but nonetheless, I just felt it was the right thing to do. A war was going on. They needed their best people, and I didn’t want to be in Germany when there was a war going on in Vietnam…

Arriving in-country, Dec. 4, 1967:

I suppose like anyone, you are scared. It’s hot. It’s unfamiliar. It’s oppressive. There is great angst, uncertainty. As we were walking down the steps, moving — we got in there early in the morning. It was like 6:00 in the morning. Even at 6:00 in the morning, the heat was oppressive.

We were walking toward the processing area, and a bunch of the grizzled old veterans that were coming back that were going to get on the bird we were on to go back home were shouting things at us. “Hey, baby. Charlie’s going to love you. They’re going to cut your ears off.” And I mean, saying every outrageous thing that you can imagine.

Of course we’re all very staid, solid, marching along and not trying to let any of this affect us. Well, of course it did…

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