Chuck Hagel Nomination: An Interview With Senator Hagel on His Vietnam Combat Experience and Vision for the War’s Commemoration
Our democracy can only work when there is confidence in our leaders.
Now that Chuck Hagel has officially been nominated by President Obama as his Defense Secretary, the focus of both politicians and media have turned to the Republican Nebraska Senator, especially his views as they pertain to the military. The two-term Republican senator from Nebraska drew the ire of his party and the Bush administration when he raised objections to Iraq and Afghanistan war policies before choosing not to run again in 2008. Today, Hagel remains an important voice on domestic and foreign policy as chairman of the Atlantic Council, co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and in other advisory roles across Washington. His views on war have been shaped by his own experience in combat as a rifleman with his brother Tom in Vietnam in 1968. In this interview with Vietnam editor Roger L. Vance, Hagel recalls that experience and its impact on his views.
Did you grow up thinking you would be in the military?
Growing up in a little Nebraska town in the ’50s, with a father who’d served overseas in World War II, and where the VFW and American Legion clubs were the center of activity, there was an expectation that each has a responsibility to serve. How it would play out was uncertain. I’d never focused on being a soldier or in the military, but as events unfolded, Vietnam came along when I was at draft age.
Why did you enlist rather than remain in school?
I’d been in and out of a few colleges when I was informed by my draft board in early 1967 that levies were coming down and they were taking everybody. They said they would give me six months to get myself back into college. I told them: “I think I’d like to volunteer for the draft. How soon can I go?” They said, “The next bus leaves for Omaha in 30 days and we could probably get you on it.” I said, “Put me on that bus,” and they did. That was in April 1967.
And your brother Tom wasn’t far behind?
Tom graduated from high school two weeks later, and two weeks after that he was on the same bus. He was a couple of months behind me everywhere I went.
But you still were not Vietnam bound?
After Fort Bliss for Basic Training and Fort Ord for Advanced Infantry Training, I was selected for the first class trained to use the Army’s newest top-secret weapon, the first shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile, the Red Eye. We were to be placed in units in Europe to bring down low-flying Soviet aircraft. We trained at White Sands missile range, and I was among the trainees to demonstrate the Red Eye for President Lyndon Johnson.
What was that like?
Well, I missed the first target. The generals and colonels couldn’t believe it. An idiot should be able to hit the target; after all, it was heat-seeking. I did hit the second one.
How did you get to Vietnam instead of Germany?
I knew the Red Eye wasn’t for Vietnam but I thought the training would be helpful. So I knew that when I got my orders for Germany I had to make a decision. I left White Sands for two weeks at home before shipping out, but I figured if I said then that I wanted to go to Vietnam, it was very likely they would not let me go. So I waited until we were back at Fort Dix, and about two hours before the bus was to take us to catch the plane for Germany, I took my orders and quietly slipped out of the barracks and went to the orderly room. I told them that I had orders for Germany but wanted to volunteer to go to Vietnam. The room went silent as everybody turned and stared at me. They said, “Wait a minute,” and came back with a captain. They thought something was wrong with me, that I was loony, on drugs or had committed a crime and was running away. They sent in a chaplain, then a counselor. After about 90 minutes, they took my orders and sent me back to the barracks. When I got there, I lay down on my bunk. All the guys were saying: “What’s wrong with you? What are you doing? The bus is coming!” I said: “I’m not going; I just volunteered to go to Vietnam.” My buddies thought I’d lost my mind. One of the guys gave me his wristwatch, saying his brother had worn it the whole time he was a rifleman in Vietnam and nothing ever happened to him. “It kept my brother safe and I want you to have it,” he said. “It will keep you safe.” I still have the watch, but I have never been able to track down the guy who gave it to me. I waited at Dix for about two weeks until they gave me new orders, and on Dec. 4, 1967, I left for Vietnam.
And Tom had a similar adventure?
After training, he went to cooking school and had orders for Germany. We didn’t confer on this, but at the last minute he volunteered for Vietnam, too.
What motivated you to volunteer? Were you big supporters of the war?
In 1967 neither of us was really analyzing the causes and ramifications of the war. We were inculcated with the idea that you had faith in your leaders and accepted things. We felt that if you’ve got to be in the Army and there’s a war on, you go to the war.
Before long, you were both in the same unit. How did you pull that off?
Tom got to Vietnam in January 1968, a month after me. I went to the Mekong Delta with the 2nd Battalion (Mechanized), 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, and he went with the 11th Armored Cavalry near the DMZ. We both put in transfers for each other’s units, figuring it would never happen, but by the end of January, Tom showed up at our base camp and for the next 10 months we served side by side.
What about the Sullivan brothers rule?
Because we both volunteered to be in a combat zone at the same time, the Army didn’t resist. I know of a similar situation while we were there, but it was very rare.
So you were just in time for Tet?
We were called up for security at the rubber plant around Long Binh as Tet broke out. Our company was the first into Long Binh. Nobody knew what was going on when we got in around 6:30 a.m. The place was blowing up everywhere. Two tracks right in front of me just vaporized. Nearly every officer and most senior enlisted men were killed or wounded by the end of the first day. I was a private, but for about a month I was one of the company’s acting sergeants while we did a lot of the house-to-house fighting before moving back to the delta.
And you and Tom were soon on track to rack up a combined five Purple Hearts.
The first time we were wounded was in March on a search and destroy mission in the jungle. Tom and I walked point most all the time. We just thought we were a bit sharper than the other boys.
Did your mother know about this?
She knew we were together, but she didn’t know a lot of the stuff. No point in burdening her with a lot of that. Well, another squad took point to give us a break. We were following a waterway in thick jungle where we knew the VC were. The guys walking point hit a trip wire that detonated big Chinese mines in the trees, killing three guys and wounding a bunch more, including Tom, who got shrapnel in his neck and arms, and me, who got it in the chest. Then the VC opened up on us. When the situation stabilized, medevacs came in and dropped baskets through the canopy for the dead and wounded. It was getting dark and we needed to get out of there fast, so the captain asked Tom and me to get back on point. It was then that Tom found another grenade, hidden in another tree, that we damn near activated.
Your second wounds were more serious?
In April we went into a village where we knew the VC were. My track was the first in. We swept the village, had a little firefight and took some prisoners. My track was also the last going out, and we hit a land mine, killing one guy and wounding others. Tom was unconscious. I knew the track itself was going to blow, so I started throwing everybody off. Tom and I had our eardrums blown out, and I had bad burns on my face. We were dusted off and spent a few days in a field hospital. I had bandages on my face for six weeks.
Soon you were back in Saigon?
In May, during mini-Tet, Tom was wounded a third time. During a firefight, our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Frederick Van Deusen, was above in his bubble chopper when he was shot down over the Saigon River. When Tom swam into the river to rescue him, he was shot. Van Deusen, who was General William Westmoreland’s brother-in-law, drowned. That was the only time Tom and I were ever separated during a firefight. Thankfully, his wounds were not life-threatening.
After getting his third Purple Heart, wasn’t Tom headed home?
He didn’t want to go. But as our time grew short, they didn’t want to take a chance with us; they didn’t make us go out on any more patrols. So, at Dong Tam, I was put in charge of the enlisted men’s club—a tent with a little sandbag bar—and Tom was put in charge of the PX. I got home in December 1968 and Tom in January 1969.
And you two stuck together after the war.
I’d been to three colleges before Vietnam. Tom hadn’t been to college at all. We decided to go to school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, one of the premier bootstrap universities in the country. A lot of active duty guys were finishing their school there. We worked full time—I tended bar and worked at a radio station, Tom worked as a postman. We lived together for the first year. Tom graduated in three years and went on to get his masters degree at Ohio University and then went to law school at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He was a public defender in Lincoln for three years before going to teach at Temple University law school. This year marks his 30th year as a law professor at the University of Dayton, where he is also a municipal court judge.
What was your area of interest in college?
Before Vietnam I had majored in history and taken journalism courses and had attended a radio and television school in Minnesota, the Brown Institute. I finished school in May 1971. Because I’d gone to so many other schools and got credits for serving in the military, I ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in general studies.
Could you tell how the country had changed when you came back?
I knew what America had just gone through in 1968 when we were in Vietnam: the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the riots and upheaval. It was a different place. But we didn’t have it as bad in Nebraska as on the East or West coasts. I never experienced the same kind of treatment as others did, but I read and knew what was going on and heard from buddies who were treated badly.
Did people understand what was actually happening in Vietnam?
It is astounding. Today I can’t fathom that this country would allow something like that to happen—16,000 young men killed in one year. I think America was confused and off balance. People didn’t know what it was about, why we were losing so many kids. Unlike today, it was a draft war, and that draft seeped out into all of society so it forced people to deal with it. I don’t think most people were concerned with the whys and the whats; it just got to the point where enough was enough, let’s just get out.
After college you worked at a radio station, then found your way to Washington.
I was always interested in journalism and that led me toward politics and government. When I first went to Washington, Congressman John McCollister from Omaha, whom I had interviewed on the radio, was the only person I knew there. He let me job-hunt out of his office. Through him I probably visited 100 offices, but nobody had any openings. Finally, Congressman McCollister made me a deal: He’d give me a part-time job, pay me 200 bucks a month and let me live in his basement while I looked for a job. So I loaded up my ’57 Chevy and moved to D.C. A year later I was Congressman McCollister’s chief of staff, the youngest on Capitol Hill. I worked for the congressman for five years, until he ran for the Senate in 1976 and lost. I then went to work for Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, where I was the youngest manager of government affairs of a major corporation in D.C. I was very lucky.
But you had caught the eye of some top Republicans and were pulled back into politics.
In 1980, Sen. Bill Brock of Tennessee asked me to a take leave of absence from Firestone and help out with the Ronald Reagan presidential campaign. That is when I became acquainted with Reagan and his top people. After the election, in 1981 I was asked to serve as deputy commissioner general of the Knoxville world’s fair. Later in 1981 I was nominated by President Reagan to be deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration.
Your tenure there was cut short by a disagreement you had with the Reagan administration?
I resigned in July 1982 because I had a significant disagreement with the administration on veteran programs. They wanted to cut Agent Orange studies and programs, and they wanted to do away with the veterans centers that had been started by former VA Administrator Max Cleland. I thought they were going in the wrong direction. The VA administrator at the time was Bob Nimmo, a fine man, World War II vet and a friend of Reagan’s from California, but he was not sympathetic to Vietnam veterans. He went on a morning news show and called them “crybabies” over their claims about Agent Orange. I didn’t want to cause problems for the president, so I resigned.
And that’s when you left politics for the business world?
I was offered some other positions in the administration, but turned them down. I really had no prospects; I just jumped. After a couple of months, some old friends who were in the cable TV business wanted me to join them in this new technology called cellular telephony. I had to cash in my life insurance policy and sell my 1978 Buick Skylark to come up with the $5,000 to make my investment. Three years later the company was one of the largest nonwire cell telephone companies in the country.
So your success with Vanguard Cellular allowed you to pursue other opportunities?
I was serving on the world USO Board of Governors. The organization was going bankrupt and the board asked me to take over as president in 1987. It took about three years, working full time, but we turned the USO around. I was still on the Vanguard board, but wanted to take some time off. That’s when Brent Scowcroft called me to the White House to meet with President George H.W. Bush and James Baker. They asked Republican Party official Fred Malek and me to put together the G-7 economic summit in Texas in July 1990, pro bono of course. It was great fun. Then I was named president of the Private Sector Council in 1991, and in 1992 I moved back to Nebraska to be president of McCarthy Company, a private investment banking firm.
And a few years later, you took the leap to run for the Senate.
I ran for the Senate in 1996. I was not supposed to win the primary, or the race against two-term Governor Ben Nelson, but I won the election by 14 points. In the 2002 election, I won with the highest percentage of victory in Nebraska history, with 84 percent of the vote.
Why did you decide not to run again in 2008?
I did not run for a third term partly because I had said I would only serve two terms. I had a lot of encouragement to run, but by then I also felt I was out of step with my own Republican Party. I saw where it was going and I didn’t like it. I decided I could do more good on the outside. Serving in the Senate was the greatest honor and privilege of my life. I enjoyed it, but enough was enough. So I’m doing other things now and have never been happier. I have been very lucky in my life.
You also spoke out about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that was not particularly popular within the Bush administration and your party.
Unfortunately, much of what I warned about is coming true. I said early on that Iran would have more influence in Iraq than the U.S. does and there would be a tendency toward dictatorship. The fact is we didn’t need to invade, Saddam didn’t control 60 percent of his country, he was withering on the vine. I’m not sure we enhanced the situation in Iraq in any way although we paid a terrible price and undermined our influence in the Middle East, and our standing after the invasion was the worst ever. When you add it all up, I’m not sure how we made it better, other than for Iran. But the history is not completely written yet. We do know that it is not at all what the Bush administration and those who were for the war told the people and Congress—not even close
In Afghanistan, we lost our way. The reason we are losing Afghanistan is that it wasn’t ours to win or lose. I even question the concept of winning or losing in that situation. The whole frame of reference was wrong, and then we invaded Iraq and mindlessly took our eye off ball in Afghanistan and took all of the resources and focused on Iraq—before the mission in Afghanistan was done. But we hung on and had to reinvest and come back in and it was a mess by then. Trying to run two wars, when so much was beyond our control, ended in disaster for both. After 10 years in Afghanistan, what are we going to have when we get out? What have we done here? So far more than 2,100 dead and thousands wounded, spent a trillion dollars, and we undermined ourselves and enhanced Iran.
The secretary of defense recently tapped you to serve as chairman of the Vietnam War Commemoration Advisory Committee. How important is that to you?
I am honored by the appointment and looking forward to doing all I can to help the effort. While in the Senate I cosponsored the bill creating the commemoration and brought it forward. It will be a formal, official recognition of a war we can’t celebrate, that people don’t like to talk about except as an example of a failed decision or failed experience. So it is a way to acknowledge those who sacrificed and unflinchingly served their country. It is overdue and it is important to do now.
What should Vietnam vets think as the nation begins to mark the 50th anniversary of the war?
They need to recognize that one’s service to country always counts, even when there is a lack of clear purpose and agreement. That personal sacrifice and commitment still matters, and it is the mark of character to honor out nation’s commitments with service. And yes sometimes it’s fair and sometimes it’s unfair, and that’s why there must always be a national debate before going to war. But we should never diminish one’s service to his or her country.
Vietnam vets did their duty honorably and well. Those who went to Vietnam had no voice in forming the policy. They did what the policy of their country asked them to do. Later we found out that policy was often dishonest and misguided, but our democracy can only work when we have confidence in our leaders. We must never again let our leaders fail our country that way. That is what drove me so much on the Iraq and Afghanistan debate. I was involved in big decisions on war, and I didn’t want ever to be accused of having failed to speak up and question these decisions. Vietnam veterans must do the same. Challenging, probing and questioning is what is patriotic. Not to question is unpatriotic.
After Vietnam you had an extraordinary business and political career. How did your experience shape your thinking?
We are each a product of our experiences, and my time in combat very much shaped my opinions about war. I’m not a pacifist; I believe in using force, but only after following a very careful decision-making process. The night Tom and I were medevaced out of that village in April 1968, I told myself: If I ever get out of this and I’m ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war. I never forgot that vow I made to myself, and I tried to live by it during my time in the Senate.
This interview appeared in the December 2012 issue of Vietnam magazine. www.vietnammag.com