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.
One month later, the brothers were back to fighting, and next it was Tom – the turret gunner at the time – who was gravely injured when a roadside bomb blew up under his armored personnel carrier.
Hagel was sure his brother had been killed. He was “dead weight, blood pouring out of his ears,” he recalled in a 1997 interview with the Washington Post.
As Hagel tried to get his brother and others out to safety, ammunition stored in the vehicle blew up in his face.
The brothers took their second trip to the hospital together, where Tom recovered and Chuck received salve and bandages for his face. It took a decade for the wounds to heal fully. Hagel still cannot grow a beard.