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…

On training he got in Vietnam:

The guy next to you may be the guy that saves your life. It may be because of him you either die or live. If he’s not paying attention, then you’re in trouble. That’s effective, and they work that, but again, in the kind of numbers we’re talking about, you’re going to have guys that are and were not prepared to be in those situations.

And a lot of guys cracked up.

A lot of guys were — either hurt themselves or someone else or got others killed or got themselves killed because they weren’t ready for it.

On walking the point:

Well, a point man, as I think most people know, is the individual who was out front. And these are usually squad- sized patrols, sometimes a company-sized patrol, depending on the mission.

And you have the front — physically the front position, but also the responsibility of essentially not walking your squad or your company into an ambush or a trap. So you had to be very, very focused on the peripheral vision and the antenna and just the sense and the instincts and something doesn’t look right or grenades hanging in trees, which booby traps were just a way of life.

You dealt with that all the time.

And just generally having an antenna that’s on 360 degrees all the time. And there were a lot of guys who just didn’t pay attention to it. They just — it’s just the way they were.

And I, again, always felt better if I was up front than maybe some others.

On what he was doing when the Tet offensive began Jan. 30, 1968:

We were securing the rubber plantation not too far from Long Binh, the old Michelin rubber plantation [just northeast of Saigon]. And so my units were the first one into Long Binh as that ammo dump was — was being blown.

And of course, they were getting — the VC were getting into MACV headquarters, and as you know, part of the objective there was to take Westmoreland hostage.

And nobody knew what was going on. Something — something was happening. It was pretty big, but (snaps fingers) we were pulled up out of the Michelin — we left — we left ponchos. We left everything right on the ground. And we grabbed guns and were on those APCs and down that road.

And I was the third track in the Long — got into the Long Binh ammo dump. And as we were getting into the ammo dump, it started to blow. I have a picture in my office — sometime you’ll have to stop by and see it — that was sent to me a couple of years ago by a guy I did not know and still have not met, but he was in my — he was in another company, Alpha Company that was right behind Bravo Company on the tracks going in.

And he took this picture on his Kodak camera, and it looks like a nuclear mushroom cloud that morning when the ammo dump went up.

There were two tracks in front of me that hit — that hit — hit this. Essentially as vaporized as you can be in one of those.

We were the third track in.

And we got the blowback on it. And the force was so bad that it essentially picked the track up a little bit and turned us around and took us right into a ditch. Some of us were burned a little bit, but nobody was seriously hurt…

After Tet, I was acting company sergeant for about two weeks until we could get some senior NCOs in. Our — one of our captains, I remember him very well. He was right next to me. We were in a cemetery one morning, and a sniper shot him right between the eyes, and he was right next to me. We had a pretty high mortality rate for officers during that time.

On Mar. 28, 1968:

We were on an ambush patrol. We knew that VC had been in this area. And we were walking through a very dense jungle, and we were crossing a — a stream. And someone hit a — in fact, my brother Tom and I had been walking point. Had been walking point almost all day.

This was a company, if I remember. I think it was company strength. And my platoon had had the point position. And Tom and I had been out on point most of the day.

And the company commander, I think Captain Davis, rotated my squad back to the second-position squad, and they moved up a squad.

And about an hour later, we were crossing a stream. One of the point guys hit a tripwire in the stream. There were large Claymore mines that had been placed in the trees. And so when that tripwire was hit, the Claymores exploded and of course took down the guys in front of us. Hit me with shrapnel in the chest. Tom got shrapnel in the arms and I think some in his chest.

We — there wasn’t — if I recall, there was a — there was a bit of a firefight, but what the VC would do, they’d slow you down and stop you with these major booby traps, and this one was a major one.

And then they usually would leave behind some snipers.

Occasionally, they’d have a couple of machine gunners that would pick some of you off because in the disarray of the explosion and you’re trying to get to your guys, you’re vulnerable. And some of that happened. And I don’t remember how many people were killed there, but I know there were quite a few wounded.

And then we had to — somewhat of a firefight, and they were able to get the dead lifted out. It was hard to get in with choppers because it was so dense. And then of course you got problems, too, with the security of bringing those choppers down that low. And they were concerned about bringing them in.

And so we — we stayed there up — we had to, until nightfall, to get the dead out and then the more severely wounded. Tom and I, the captain came to us and said, “Can you guys make it?” And we said, “Yes, we can.”

And so he said, “Can you get back on point and lead us out?”

So Tom and I were wounded, but we got back on point, and I think that was — I was as afraid that night as I think I’ve ever been because it was dark. And when it gets dark, it’s — it is dark.

And how many more booby traps you’re going to walk into that you really can’t see. We almost hit another one. My brother Tom saved us. There was another — about — we started to move out. Probably it wasn’t 20 or 30 yards from where we were as we started to get — it was starting to get dark, moved out.

And Tom spotted a — a live hand grenade hanging with a little — a little thin veneer there of wire, which it would have gotten me. And he was able to grab the grenade and defuse it. But we walked them out. We finally got out. I don’t know at what time. Maybe 11:00 at night and finally got out, and the choppers came and picked us up.

It wasn’t that bad. I mean, they took us to hospitals and — I still have some shrapnel in my chest. It was peppered pretty good and punctured and a lot of blood, but there was not anything that was life-threatening. And they took us into a field hospital, and we spent, I think, three days there. They dug most of the stuff out of us, out of Tom and out of me, but they left some of it in me because it was around the heart. And so it’s interesting when I get chest x-rays. (laughter) They show up.

And then a month later it happened again:

We were conducting a bridge security exercise, and it was backed — what we talked about earlier, keeping the highways open at night, running those — those roads. And bridges were obviously important because that was a main attraction of the saboteurs, to blow up those bridges and disrupt as much of the flow as the VC could. So we were on a — on a bridge security detail. And it was late into the night, maybe even early in the morning, when we got a call to pack up and get to a village where it was believed that VC were in the village. And we moved very quickly into that village.

My track was the lead track going in, lead track being the armored personnel carrier. We surrounded the village with our APCs and dismounted and then worked in the village. And if I recall, there was not any activity in that village that night as far as any firefights or we didn’t find anybody. And we spent, I think, an hour, hour and a half searching the village and found nothing.

Whereupon we mounted back up on the APCs and moved away from the village, the same way we came in. Since my track was the first track going in, my track was the last track going out. And as we were going out, my track, being the last track, we hit a 500-pound mine, which was detonated, had been detonated, through a detonation wire that VC were in the trees and of course chose us because we were the last track.

Fortunately our track did not take the full blast that — the track didn’t come right up on top of the middle of that bomb. And the — the bomb blew the track up, and it came up the side of the track. And I was on — sitting on the left-hand side was the leader of the track, and my brother Tom was in the .50 caliber machine gun, working the radio that night, and the driver. And as we engaged the force of the impact of that bomb, of course the track was blown up…

The fire came up the side and hit me all the way up and down my left side, burnt my face, arms. My brother Tom was unconscious because of the concussion. And a lot of action going on. We had — also were experiencing some machine gunfire from the — from the jungle. And by the time our other tracks could get turned around and come back, what I did was get everybody off the track because I was afraid that it would blow with all the ammunition that we had in those tracks, and it would blow up.

So we were able to throw everybody off the track. Some guys got off on their own. My brother Tom was unconscious, and we took the earphones off of him. He had blood running out of his ears and his nose. And I didn’t know if he was dead. So we got him off. I threw him off, and I fell on top of him as we — as we dove off.

And by this time, the machine gunfire had — had gotten even fiercer and heavier, but our tracks were coming back to get us. And we had to clear the area first. We had — I think we had people injured that night, too, and maybe even a couple killed from that. And Tom had had the concussion and been hit with, I think, some shrapnel. I had been hit with shrapnel and burnt my face and up and down. Both eardrums of mine were blown out as well. And until we could secure the area, they couldn’t bring any choppers in to get the wounded out.

And so I’ll never forget take — they took Tom and me out. And Tom was burned a little bit, too. I was burned pretty bad. And they put the salve on me over my face and my arms. And they wrapped us up in a blanket and put us on another APC and took us on down the road where we could secure things. And we waited for the choppers to dust us off that night along with the other guys that were hit.

And the burn — of course there’s nothing quite like a burn. The pain. And we didn’t have any medics there with us. And we did have some guys, again, I think, that were pretty bad shape, so the morphine, everything was used for them. They did give us some shots, but the pain was pretty bad.

And I remember sitting on that track, another track, waiting for the — the dustoff to come and medical evacuation, and thinking to myself, you know, if I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, calls upon to settle a dispute. The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it. People just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it. There’s no glory, only suffering in war.

The trouble with individuals rotating in and out, instead of entire units:

The rotation problem was bigger than we could have imagined and didn’t quite even understand it when we were going through it. As I look back on it now, it’s — it was the worst thing that could possibly happen.

You had guys rotating in and out daily. You would break the continuity of leadership. You’d break the continuity of confidence, of teamwork.

You’d get a guy who was leaving in about a month and — or two months, and he wouldn’t pay attention. He — he would constantly look for ways to not go out in the field because he was down to — actually it got — it started about 90 days, and say, “Well, I’m not — listen, I’ve come this far. I’m not going to risk it. I’m 90 days away from being out of here.”

So you’d find guys on sick call that wanted to do berm duty, did everything but go out and subject themselves to what could be their last patrol. And that — that broke down everything. So it was a very bad policy.

On being a combat grunt:

Well, you know, people who have never been in combat have no way of understanding what it is. They see movies. They see different dynamics. They read. They talk with people who have been through it.

And I think there’s always an exaggerated sense of it to a certain extent that, you know, you’re fighting every day, and there’s this life-and-death situation every day. And it isn’t that way.

Yes, you — I don’t know how many firefights I was in. I don’t know how much combat — I mean, the actual day-to-day people shooting at you and you shoot at them and the problems, I’ve never tried to calculate it. I had my share. And 1968, as you know, was the worst year we ever had over there, but a lot of it is pretty boring, too.

A lot of it is pretty monotonous. A lot of it is going through the same thing day after day. And maybe you go for a week and not have anything. Maybe you go for two weeks and just not have anything.

Of course, that’s dangerous, too, because you get sloppy and you — you don’t pay attention. But that’s the only thing I would add about — you asked the question about the combat experience. There’s a lot of downtime in the sense of a lot of boring time.

Now, we weren’t sitting around, munching pretzels and drinking beer. We were out in the field and sweating and probably wishing sometimes you were in combat and doing the patrol work and the breaking jungle for 16 hours a day with a machete and always thinking that you might be in the gun sights of a sniper up in a tree or always knowing that there was a grenade hanging on that tree or always knowing you could be walking right into an ambush, which we did.

And the mental pressure that is on people who are out in those situations, the intensity of that pressure, does make — does make an individual break. It makes him do funny things. It — and I don’t think people quite understand that. It carries forward, too.

You know, we’ve gone through this 30 years and 20 years and 10 years of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Really is there such a thing?

And do guys wake up in the middle of the night?

I remember my father, when I was young — he was in World War II overseas for almost three years. I remember him waking up in the middle of the night screaming. No. It does happen. And it happens not just because of necessarily the blood and gore that you see in combat. It’s the — it’s the pressure of the mental process that — that makes you that way.

On getting out:

The out-processing was terrible. Now, for me, wanting to just get the hell out, at that moment, for me, it was — it was the greatest thing that could happen because the last thing I wanted was to hear a bunch of majors or sergeant majors tell me about anything.

But — but when you think of — of 72 hours prior to the time you let somebody out on that street in San Francisco or wherever they’re going to go to with a full wallet, new Class As. “Thank you for your service, young man. Now go have a good life.”

Considering what they had just been through, with no transition, no kind of bringing it down a little bit, no adjustment, no — I mean, you had your quick little physical. You had your little — you had the chaplain talk to you. You had a couple of psychiatrists talk to you, and that was all about an hour, the whole thing.

“And now, you be a good boy, and don’t do anything crazy. Don’t get too drunk on the way home. And don’t spend all your money. Your mom’s waiting for you. Or your wife’s waiting for you. Be careful. We appreciate your service.” I mean, that was it…

That just wasn’t a good way to do it because you had — in those days in ’68, you had so many of these draftees in there who many of them weren’t suited to be there for a lot of reasons. And they needed some counseling out of this.

Now, some guys were going to be headed for trouble, no matter what. Some guys went in with trouble and they came out with trouble. And some guys blame it on Vietnam, and maybe Vietnam made it worse for some guys. In some cases, it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d gone to Vietnam or not. These are some pretty troubled guys.

And — but — but to almost just cut them loose with 72 hours notice, say, boom, you’re on your own, and not bringing them down a little bit, just a little at a time, a little at a time, was a — was a — is a bad, bad thing to do.

And I’ve had many veterans — when I was at the Veterans Administration, when I was deputy administrator of the VA in the first Reagan administration, had many of these guys say the same thing to me that I’m saying to you. “If I would have had maybe a week or 10 days just to think through and get myself together a little bit,” but what happened was you go hit a bar or you got that full wallet. You meet some girls. You go do something stupid.

On his leaders:

The company commanders and the platoon leaders, they were the ones obviously on the ground with you. But I was not much impressed with our — our battalion leaders, our XOs.

I don’t — I didn’t ever get a sense that they came down in, enough into the platoon company level to really do what I thought officers should do.

And the lieutenants and the captains carried the bulk, as they do in any war, essentially.

But it was the sergeants. It was the senior enlisted that carried the weight. I mean really carried the weight. And it was obvious to everybody. And they — the senior sergeants were the reassuring, calming guys.

And in many cases, many cases, these were the guys that didn’t fall apart. And some of the officers did. And some of the officers couldn’t read maps very well. And I just — I never had much confidence in — in a lot of the officer corps.

How he has applied what he learned in Vietnam to life since:

There’s not a day goes by that you don’t pull back on at least some little thing — life’s not about big things every day — and you don’t recall in some way an experience you had in the service, in Vietnam, a tolerance, an understanding, reaching beyond, trying to understand more than the obvious underneath.

And probably most fundamental for me as a United States senator, when we talk of going to war again Iraq or against anyone, we need to think it through carefully, not just for the political and the geopolitical and the diplomatic and the economic consequences — and those are important.

But at least for me, this old infantry sergeant thinks about when I was in Vietnam in 1968, United States senators making decisions that affected my life and a lot of people who lost their lives, that they didn’t have — I didn’t have anything to say about.

Someone needs to represent that perspective in our government as well. The people in Washington make the policy, but it’s the little guys who come back in the body bags.

h/t Best Defense

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