His combat experience intrigues many current veterans, who believe it could make Hagel one of the more qualified defense secretaries America has ever had.
“It’s a total game-changer,” says Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who was a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader serving in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. “It’s hard for civilians to understand what that means. If you think of enlisted and officers, it’s the difference between union and management. To have someone come up as a private is like someone coming up through a mail room – he understands it, and every level in between.”
Moreover, Mr. Rieckoff adds, “being an enlisted infantry grunt is one of the single most dangerous jobs in a war – it’s the backbone of the Army.
“He knows what it’s like to pull the trigger, to write letters home from a foreign land, to see his friend killed. I think it’s an indispensable quality to a country finishing two long wars.”
One night at a remote jungle outpost in Vietnam, Hagel recalls waking two fellow squad members with his hands on their mouths to keep them from making a sound before they crawled away on their hands and knees to escape Viet Cong patrols just feet away.