WASHINGTON — Hailed as the first true grunt to take over the Pentagon, Chuck Hagel pledged Wednesday to treat his people fairly and to look out for military families.
After being sworn in as the nation's 24th secretary of defense, Hagel kicked off his first day on the job with an address to military brass and civilian workers, who packed a basement auditorium in the sprawling complex.
The former Republican senator from Nebraska noted his work on veterans issues over the years, from fighting for Vietnam War veterans' benefits to sponsoring the new GI Bill.
He spoke of the difficult situation faced by military families, left behind while loved ones go off and dedicate themselves to their work.
“Much of my life has been about doing everything I could in some way to help veterans and their families,” Hagel said.
He noted that after being sworn in early Wednesday, he visited the memorial to the 184 men and women killed at the Pentagon in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Borrowing a phrase from Winston Churchill, he described the attacks as a “jarring gong” that continues to reverberate today.
“We are living at a very defining time in the world. ... It's a difficult time,” Hagel said. “It's a time of tremendous challenge, but there are opportunities.”
He nodded to one immediate challenge — the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester that are set to hit on Friday.
“I don't need to dwell on all the good news there,” he joked. “That's a reality. We need to figure this out.”
Hagel addresses fellow Pentagon employees
A native Nebraskan was chosen to introduce Hagel — Sgt. 1st Class John Wirth, who was born in Gordon, Neb., and has served 11 years as an Army infantryman.
Hagel himself served in the infantry in the Vietnam War, during which he was wounded twice.
“Today, I'm honored to introduce a man who has already held the most important position within the Department of Defense — an infantryman,” Wirth said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Hagel pointed out that he had lived in Sheridan County, where Gordon is located, for five years when he was growing up. He said he was honored to be introduced by Wirth.
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“He's a typical Nebraskan: good-looking, smart, great patriot,” Hagel said.
Hagel also said he is committed to ensuring that everyone associated with the Defense Department “is absolutely treated fairly, honestly, equal benefits, everything that each of you do should be dealt with on a fair and equal basis, no discrimination anywhere, in any way.”
Hagel had come under some criticism from the left early in his confirmation process over past comments about a gay nominee for an ambassadorial post and his previous stance on the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy. Hagel largely defused the criticism by apologizing for his comments about the ambassador and declaring that he was fully committed to providing all benefits provided under the law.
In broad strokes, Hagel talked about the need for the United States to continue acting as a “force for good” in the world.
He said the many challenges ahead will define the Pentagon, the country and the world for the next generation. And he hit on one of his long-standing themes — the need for America to engage.
“No nation — as great as America is — can do any of this alone,” he said. “We need to continue to build on the strong relationships that we have built.”
After speaking for about 20 minutes, Hagel took his leave.
“Now,” he said, “I've got to go to work.”
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