“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.
The US military had night-vision telescopes at the time, but the enlisted soldiers weren’t allowed to take them deep into the jungle – commanders feared that they might fall into enemy hands if US troops were captured. Much like troops in the early days of the Iraq war, Hagel grappled with the frustrations of limited equipment.
Just a couple of months later, in March 1968, Hagel would learn, again and again, what it meant to endure the wounds of war. It was north of Saigon that Hagel and his brother Tom’s squad was ambushed, and the brothers were subjected to their first battle scars.
Hagel was hit with shrapnel from a mine explosion. His brother came to his aid.
“I could see blood on the front of his shirt, and I tore his shirt open and that’s when geysers of blood went up,” Tom Hagel, who was peppered with shrapnel himself, later recalled to Berens.