President Obama won another victory this week by simply out waiting those who would hold up the appointment of a dog catcher if it came from Obama. Former Republican United States Senator Chuck Hagel was confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense. In taking the post this week, he becomes the first 'grunt' ever to hold that position.
The new Secretary volunteered to join his peers in going to Vietnam. The Secretary fought side by side with his brother Thomas. He was wounded twice and received two purple hearts and seven other medals. He was in the jungles of Vietnam when there was the most intense fighting of that War.
The experience left him forever a skeptic when it came to committing America's sons and daughters to foreign adventures.
Hagel said in TIME Magazine that "War is not an abstraction. I know. I have been to war."
ForeignPolicy.com has an article by Charlyne Berens that examines Hagel's innate hostility to sending troops into unnecessary wars. She writes.
"Hagel said he will never forget Dec. 4, 1967, the day his troop transport landed at Ton Son Hut air base. "It was oppressive heat like I'd never known -- and the humidity and stench.… I was physically sick to my stomach." And, like his comrades in arms, he was scared.
After a few weeks of jungle school, his unit was moved to the Mekong Delta, and Hagel was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, Bravo Company. Most of the soldiers' orders were for search-and-destroy missions. Based on intelligence, the officers would know the Viet Cong were in certain areas, and the squad would be sent out to find the VC. And destroy them.
Sometimes Hagel and his squad patrolled bridges or roads. Sometimes they would do night outpost work. "They would be almost suicide missions," Hagel said. "If anything happened, the base would never hear from you again."
A group of three soldiers would be sent into the jungle to establish a listening post, trying to discover any major enemy troop movement and to alert the company if an attack was on the way. The outposts had to maintain radio silence, so they communicated with the base camp by simply pushing a button on the radio.
In the pitch dark, all the troops at the outpost could do was listen. Any detection the squad would do was by sound, not sight. "In the jungle at night," Hagel said, "you cannot see your hand in front of your face."
One of those night outpost assignments, Hagel said, became an encounter that frightened him more than anything before or since.
Following standard operating procedure, one of the three soldiers stood watch while the other two slept on their tarps. Early one morning when Hagel was standing watch, he heard a clang. At first, he thought it was a cow bell. Then he realized what he was hearing was no herd of cows but a large group of Viet Cong, moving equipment right in front him. He actually heard whispered conversation in Vietnamese.
"It was so close you could almost reach out and touch them," he said.
He woke his two squad members, covering their mouths with his hands so they wouldn't cry out.
"Grab your rifle; grab my boot and crawl," he whispered.
The three soldiers slithered out in a human chain, Hagel leading the way. "We knew the VC were coming right on top of us, getting closer and closer."
Hagel had the radio with him, and once the squad was well away from the Viet Cong, he called the base camp to report what had happened. They were ordered to stay outside the base camp that night, in case they were being followed.
When it was daylight, they went back to try to retrieve what they had left behind a few hours earlier. Everything was gone. "The VC had been there and had picked it all up," Hagel said. The story was still frightening when Hagel told it decades later. But that encounter didn't end in injury the way two others did."
In March 1968, the brothers were walking an ambush patrol when the soldiers at the front of the column tripped a booby trap, and mines full of shrapnel, planted in trees, exploded all around the troops. That time Tom saved Chuck's life, wrapping cloths around Chuck's chest to stop extensive bleeding. The former senator still has some of that shrapnel in his chest.
A month later, after the brothers had recovered in an Army hospital, they were riding in a personnel carrier when a land mine exploded under the vehicle. Chuck thought Tom, the turret gunner, had been killed by the blast. He started pulling Tom and others from the carrier, trying to get everyone out before the ammunition in the carrier blew up. But he was still too close when the inevitable explosion came and set him on fire, burning his face severely. Tom survived, but, again, the Hagel boys were on their way to the hospital together.
Chuck Hagel remembers it well, lying in a medevac helicopter, waiting to be airlifted out of the jungle and listening to Linda Ronstadt singing on the radio: "You and I travel to the beat of a different drum." And Hagel remembers saying to himself, "If I ever get out, and if I ever can influence anything, I will do all I can to prevent war."
Almost 40 years later, the memory was still fresh. "Not that I'm a pacifist," he said. "I'm a hard-edged realist. I understand the world as it is. But war is a terrible thing. There's no glory, only suffering."
Some things are worth fighting and dying for, Hagel said, but going to war should be a last resort."