Former Sen. Chuck Hagel was a sergeant in 1968 when he served in Vietnam. (Library of Congress)
In this 2007 file photo, then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks during an appearance at Bellevue University, in Bellevue, Neb. President Obama has nominated the Vietnam veteran to head the Defense Department. (Nati Harnik / The Associated Press)
In the 70 years since the Pentagon rose from the mud flats of the Potomac River, it has never been run by a man who fought among the enlisted grunts.
But that will change if Vietnam veteran and former Sen. Chuck Hagel is confirmed to be the next secretary of defense.
The White House on Monday formally nominated Hagel, 66, a former Army infantry sergeant and Republican from Nebraska. President Obama selected Hagel to carry out his defense strategy, which has focused on drawing down troops in Afghanistan and curbing defense spending without "breaking faith" with men and women in uniform.
The nomination, which requires Senate approval, is controversial among some Republicans, in part because Hagel has been skeptical of aggressive action toward Iran.
And Hagel alienated many of his GOP colleagues when in 2007 he was one of the party's most vocal critics of George W. Bush's management of the Iraq war.
Yet Hagel enjoys overwhelming support from many veterans groups who see a Purple Heart recipient who understands how war forever affects the troops who go to fight it.
Hagel still has shrapnel bits lodged in his chest from a Claymore that exploded on his platoon in March 1968 while they were out on an "ambush patrol" in the dense jungles of Vietnam. They were crossing a stream when a solider hit a trip wire that set off mines hanging in nearby trees.
"I was as afraid that night as I think I've ever been," Hagel recalled in a 2002 interview for the Library of Congress archives.
"I had been hit with shrapnel and burnt my face up and down. Both eardrums … were blown out as well. And until we could secure the area, they couldn't bring any choppers in to get the wounded out," Hagel said.
"I remember [waiting for the medevac 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, call upon to settle a dispute," Hagel told an interviewer just months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"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."
Analysts: Good selection
Hagel's nomination to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is applauded by many defense experts.
"He's been an enlisted person. He understands what happens in war. And that is going to give him a lot of credibility," said Larry Korb, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Hagel will be the second Republican tapped by Obama has selected to run the Defense Department. He asked former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a George W. Bush appointee, to serve during his administration's first term.
It was rare for a Republican to criticize the war in Iraq as Hagel did. As the Senate was debating a proposed troop surge in January 2007, then-Sen. Hagel questioned the president's war plan in an impassioned speech.
"There is no strategy. This is a ping-pong game with American lives," he said. "These young men and women that we put in Anbar province, in Iraq, in Baghdad, are not beans. They're real lives. And we better be damn sure we know what we're doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder."
Volunteering for war
Hagel, a native Cornhusker, was a baby boomer who dropped out of college precisely as the U.S military was ramping up troop levels in Vietnam in 1967.
When he was 20, his draft board summoned him and said he had six months figure out how to get back into college if he wanted to avoid the draft.
"And I sat before the draft board and said, ‘No. I think the best thing for me is to go in the Army'," Hagel told the Library of Congress.
Soon afterward, he shipped out to Fort Bliss in Texas for basic training and volunteered for Army infantry duty, 11 Bravo.
He later explained why he chose the infantry: "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."
Initially, Hagel was posted to Germany. But he protested that and asked to deploy immediately to Vietnam.
"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 room and an orderly said, ‘Young man, sit down.'
"And a chaplain came out. A psychiatrist came out. We had two majors come out. Took me aside.
"Obviously, they were concerned that I was running away from something. 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,' " Hagel recalled.
"All my friends thought I was out of my mind, that I'd had too much of that Tijuana tequila [while at basic training in Texas], 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."
In December 1967, Hagel arrived in Vietnam and after five days of "jungle school" was assigned to a squad with the 9th Infantry Division.
The scene he described would be familiar to today's Iraq and Afghanistan veterans: Villages where it was hard to distinguish between poor farmers and Viet Cong insurgents; enemy lurking in the bushes, armed with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and 120mm mortars; roads laden with mines and booby traps.
And a small forward operating base on the banks of the Mekong Delta that offered little security.
"A regular evening was to — was to get rocketed, mortared. Sometimes it was intense," he recalled. "A lot of guys cracked up. A lot of guys either hurt themselves or … got others killed or got themselves killed because they weren't ready for it."
Weeks after Hagel's arrival, the communists launched the Tet Offensive, a massive assault across South Vietnam that stunned U.S. troops and their host-nation allies. Soon, Hagel's unit was engaged in house-to-house fighting in urban Saigon.
The "Wild West'
Hagel recalled an Army in crisis. Many soldiers drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. Racial tensions rippling from home — Martin Luther King was killed while Hagel was deployed — caused black soldiers to sleep in separate tents and often disobey orders from white officers. Fistfights were common.
"Guys would pick up loaded M16s and loaded .45s and start shooting at somebody's foot or shooting over the top — in the — in the tents, in base camp, at night after drinking a quart of vodka. I mean, it was a little bit like the Wild West," he said.
Like many soldiers at the time, Hagel was promoted into a leadership position with little training. "I was acting platoon sergeant for a couple weeks or maybe even a month. You're thrown into these deals where you just — you just go by instinct. You hang on and — and do what you've got to do."
If confirmed as secretary of defense, Hagel will be surrounded by the military's most senior generals and flag officers — a stark change from his days as an enlisted soldier.
"I never really saw or had any meaningful contact with anybody above our company commander. … My group of soldiers didn't have any relationship with [senior officers] at all."
The exception was his company commander and the lieutenants who ran those platoons. "They would be in … the enlisted men's hooches. When we were having down time, they'd sit there and drink beer with us. They'd sit there and play cards with us," Hagel recalled.
A change of perspective
Hagel said he fully supported the Vietnam War when he was a soldier deployed there.
"I actually believed to some extent … I thought the purpose was right and I thought there was a more of a regional, geopolitical interest and that is why our presidents and those in charge of our national security and foreign policy had chosen to make a stand in Vietnam," Hagel told an interviewer in 2011 for an HBO documentary series.
However, his time in the jungle led him to question the senior leadership's decisions.
"I saw the waste. I saw the folly … you take a mountain, you take a village and you take great casualties and then you pull out 48 hours later and then [our military leaders] say, ‘Well, this really wasn't … as strategically important as we thought.' "
"So you clear out and you think, as a 19-, 20-, 21-year-old, at some point it starts to dawn on you — you just sacrificed these young people. So if it was strategically that important …why did you pull out? Why did you just walk away?"