How Vietnam Shaped Chuck Hagel’s Worldview

“The people in Washington make the policy, but it’s the little guys who come back in the body bags.”

The Obama Administration’s nominee for Secretary of Defense described his experience in Vietnam to the Library of Congress in 2002 for the Veterans History Project.

Hagel volunteered for Vietnam at age 21, and served with his brother Tom in 1968. He was actually scheduled to go to Germany, but volunteered to be sent to Vietnam instead, where he was wounded and received two Purple Hearts.

Hagel described being on point leading his fellow soliders out the jungle while wounded with his brother.

“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,” Hagel said. “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.”

Hagel said Vietnam effects his world view because when he makes decision — such as the decision to go to war in Iraq — he think about how that decision effects the troops in harm’s way.

“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,” Hagel said. “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.”

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