Chuck Hagel's lifetime lessons from battlefield

Sen. Chuck Hagel waits for his satellite interview with Bill O'Reilly for a live spot on Fox News' O'Reilly Factor in the Russell Senate Building rotunda in Washington, D.C., in 2005.

Vietnam is Chuck Hagel's yardstick.

President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next secretary of defense measures everything against the combat-hardened lessons that he says shaped him tremendously.

No job can be tougher. Even politics, after all, isn't war.

Now the former Army infantry sergeant and two-term U.S. senator from Nebraska has been asked to lead America's military. He would be the first Vietnam combat veteran to head the Defense Department.

Hagel's path to the Pentagon started in rural Nebraska, a historically isolationist state now heavily dependent on global exports. The kernels of his internationalist world view were cultivated in a patriotic and civic-minded home.

When the Hagel boys graduated from high school, their mother gave each the same gift: a Samsonite suitcase.

Photos: Chuck Hagel through the years
See more photos of Hagel, from Nebraska youngster to national statesman.

The message: Go out and make your way in the world.

Hagel burst onto the Nebraska and national political scene in 1996 when he became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from the state since 1972. It was his first run for public office. He defeated Attorney General Don Stenberg for the Republican nomination and then trounced popular Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson in the general election by 14 percentage points.

A decade ago he was Nebraska's most popular politician. He won 83 percent of the vote when running for re-election in 2002 — a record in a Nebraska Senate race.

Passers-by eagerly shook his hand and saluted his political independence.

After two years, the glow had faded. Hagel's blunt criticism of President George W. Bush's Iraq policy soured many Nebraska Republicans in 2004.

Hagel was not deterred. He said that asking tough questions about Iraq policy was his job. He said that men and women in uniform, and their families, deserved a U.S. policy worthy of their sacrifice.

“War is not an abstraction,” Hagel often says. “I know. I've been to war.''

Hagel is the son of a World War II tailgunner who came home to Nebraska and married his sweetheart. Charles and Betty Hagel's firstborn arrived in 1946. Chuck was the first of four sons.

Charles worked at lumberyards around the state. The family struggled. Chuck lived in North Platte, Ainsworth, Rushville, Scottsbluff, Terrytown, York and Columbus. Twice, their living quarters were hotel basements.

The Hagel boys started working at a young age. Chuck delivered newspapers at 7. He was a drive-in carhop at 9, using a stool to step up to customer cars and hang the food tray on the windows.

At St. Bonaventure Catholic High School in Columbus, he was a football fullback and president of the student council. He pumped gas at Babe and Frank Murphy's Texaco station.

His father's war experiences sparked Hagel's curiosity about the world. He grew up reading Life, Look, Time and Newsweek magazines. A history teacher at St. Bonaventure helped him see links between government, history, geography and America's relationships with the world.

Christmas morning 1962, Charles Hagel was found in his bed dead of a heart attack. He was 39. Chuck was 16. The high school junior suddenly was the man in the family.

Chuck went to Wayne State College on a football scholarship but left because of an injury. He tried Kearney State College but dropped out and enrolled at a radio and television school in Minneapolis. He earned a credential and landed a radio job in Lincoln.

In 1967 Hagel beat his draft board in Columbus to the draw and volunteered for the Army. He was in Vietnam before the end of the year.

Vietnam was the formative experience in Hagel's life. Hagel was twice wounded in the war and still carries shrapnel in his body.

He and brother Tom fought side by side with the 9th Infantry Division south of Saigon during communist North Vietnam's Tet Offensive in 1968. Chuck was 21. Tom was 19. They saved each other's lives.

More than a quarter of the more than 58,000 American deaths in the war occurred during the year Hagel was in Vietnam. The war went on for seven more years before South Vietnam fell to the North.

Hagel voted in a national election for the first time while sitting on a Sheridan tank in the Mekong Delta in 1968. He marked a straight Republican ticket on his absentee ballot, starting with Richard Nixon for president.

Hagel maintained an ideological sense of the world and the war for years after returning from Vietnam. But as he extensively read about the war and U.S. policy, he sensed that it had been waged dishonestly for an abstraction of policy and to save face — all while chewing up men and women in uniform.

As a U.S. senator three decades later, he found himself voting for nearly 98 percent of his president's programs but opposing the “Bush doctrine,” justifying unilateral and preemptive military action.

After the war, Hagel used the GI Bill and worked his way through the University of Nebraska at Omaha — where he majored in history — and became a radio talk-show host. He parlayed an interview with Republican John Y. McCollister into a job in the new congressman's Washington office.

He was McCollister's senior aide within two years.

After McCollister left office, Hagel lobbied briefly and was vice chairman of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural committee.

When Reagan appointed Hagel deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, 35-year-old Hagel was the administration's highest-placed Vietnam veteran.

Hagel was one of two main speakers at the 1982 groundbreaking of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He left the post within a year over inadequate support for Vietnam vets suffering illnesses as a result of exposure to Agent Orange toxins and joined two friends in the fledgling cellphone business.

He helped start a company called Vanguard Cellular Systems and became a multimillionaire. Hagel traveled on business to 60 countries and installed cell systems in Britain, Costa Rica and Saudi Arabia.

In 1987, the USO asked Hagel to become its chief executive. The private civilian organization that serves the needs of U.S. military personnel and families around the world was teetering on bankruptcy. Hagel cut costs and turned around the USO in three years.

Sometimes he had to step on spit-polished shoes.

In 1996, Hagel recalled that it wasn't pleasant to have admirals and generals rip him while he salvaged the USO. “But that was part of the problem,'' he said. “Everybody had been tiptoeing around admirals and generals for too long. I love admirals and generals, but the USO is for the guy at the bottom, not officers.”

Known for a hard-charging style and sometimes fiery temper, Hagel developed a reputation as a firm, tough-minded and confident leader. He is outspoken. He does his own reading, thinking and writing.

Critics say he's arrogant. Hagel says a leader must have character, courage and confidence.

In 1990, Hagel declined overtures by Republicans in Virginia, where he lived, to run for governor. He returned to Nebraska, joined an investment banking firm and courted Republicans across the state.

Critics later said political aspirations drove Hagel home. Hagel said political ambition didn't guide him, but when Sen. J.J. Exon, a Democrat, announced his retirement in 1995, Hagel jumped into the race.

In the Senate, Hagel combined an optimistic demeanor, hard work and an avoidance of personal attacks to earn the respect of Republicans and Democrats. He worked the system, using personal contacts, relationships and alliances to make things happen. He tapped his international network of friends. (One former colleague said Hagel's Rolodex compared in size to an oil drum.)

Hagel was the only newly elected GOP senator to seek a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee in 1997. His natural interest in foreign affairs, reputation as a quick learner and photogenic gravitas made him a frequent guest on Sunday television talk shows. Washington and the world noticed.

During his two terms in the Senate, Hagel made friends on both sides of the aisle. Vice President Joe Biden, then a Delaware senator, was one. So was John McCain, an Arizona Republican and fellow Vietnam War veteran.

Hagel strongly supported McCain during the GOP presidential primary in 2000. But in 2008, Hagel — who had flirted with running for president himself — didn't endorse McCain in the race against Sen. Barack Obama.

As a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel traveled widely overseas, building relationships with foreign leaders that gave him a personal and independent view of policy matters.

During a 1999 visit to Vietnam, he said the war had positive results.

“I've always believed that as flawed as the process was, as undefined as the objective was, American involvement in Vietnam provided a very, very important benefit to the stability of Asia,'' Hagel said.

He said the United States was right to take a stand in Vietnam to bolster emerging democracies in Southeast Asia.

“I don't think it was a waste,” he said. “I think we did accomplish something.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1127,

Chuck Hagel

Age: 66

Born: North Platte, Neb.

Family: wife, Lilibet, and two college-age children: a daughter, Allyn, and a son, Ziller

Education: St. Bonaventure High School, Columbus, Neb., 1964. Brown Institute for Radio and Television, Minneapolis, 1966; bachelor's degree in history, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1971

Military: Army, 1967-68, sergeant; Vietnam War veteran; Purple Heart (two), Army Commendation Medal, Combat Infantryman's Badge, Republic of South Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (three)

Career highlights: chairman of the Atlantic Council and the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration Advisory Committee; co-chairman of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board; U.S. senator, 1997-2009; president, McCarthy & Co., an Omaha investment banking firm, 1992-1996; president and chief executive of the Private Sector Council, 1990-1992; co-founder of Vanguard Cellular Systems, 1985-1987; deputy administrator, U.S. Veterans Administration, 1981-1982; assistant to Rep. John Y. McCollister, R-Neb., 1971-1977

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