Chuck Hagel: A Combat Veteran Finally Takes Helm at the Pentagon

Chuck Hagel has officially been sworn in as the new Secretary of Defense, but what does that mean for veterans? He is the first Vietnam veteran and first enlisted soldier to ever serve as U.S. defense secretary.

Each decision is not only important, it may be the only time that someone with his military credentials will ever sit in that chair again.

The Hard Road

Chuck Hagel

Official portrait of Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy “Chuck” Hagel.

Hagel enlisted in the Army in 1968, and like many other young men, was immediately sent to Vietnam. While he earned two purple hearts during the Tet Offensive, it was perhaps another incident that ultimately forged his path to politics.

Towards the end of his tour, Hagel’s armored personnel carrier hit a land mine that caused him to suffer burns over much of his body.

In a later interview with his biographer, Charlyne Berens, Hagel used this memory to define his feelings on war: “If I ever get out, if I ever can influence anything, I will do all I can to prevent war.”

In 1997, Hagel decided to do just that by entering public service as a Republican senator from Nebraska. That was a role he maintained until 2009.

Defense of a Nation

Hagel’s time in Vietnam earned him a reputation on Capitol Hill as someone with an independent streak, which often leaves him at odds with his own Republican colleagues. He opposed the troop surge in Iraq, calling it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” He similarly opposed the surge in Afghanistan and called for deeper cuts in defense spending.

His first task at the Pentagon will be to figure how to mitigate the Defense Department’s impending loss of $46 billion during the remainder of the fiscal year. That’s a task that few, if any, would relish taking. And while he knows he has to pick and choose his battles, the armed services are already making those hard choices.

The Navy is cutting aircraft carrier deployments and possibly ending operations in South America altogether. The Air Force is being forced to ground planes (including flyovers at sporting events) and the Army is even cutting training for units coming back from Afghanistan.

There could still yet be an even bigger challenge awaiting Hagel.

Military officials have said budget cuts may limit them from carrying out the defense strategy the Obama administration unveiled last year; reliance on drones, special operations forces and moving forces to Asia.

Photo courtesy Official U.S. Navy Imagery