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Chuck Hagel, Vietnam vet: Would time as a 'grunt' be a plus at Pentagon?

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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.

Speaking his mind

Hagel's experience in war will bring a vital perspective in relating to veterans of America’s current wars, Mr. Obama argued in announcing Hagel’s nomination this week.

“My frame of reference is geared toward the guy at the bottom who’s doing the fighting and the dying,” the president said at a press conference announcing the nomination Monday.

Those who have worked with him agree. “He understands personally the ugliness and horror of it,” says biographer Berens, in an interview with the Monitor.

That will make him a better leader for a country whose troops are recovering from two long wars, Rieckhoff adds. “When you can walk into a room and say, ‘I’ve been through basic training, I was wounded myself,' that gives you a visceral understanding of those responsible for executing the orders.” 

As deputy head of the Veterans Administration (VA) under President Ronald Reagan, Hagel resigned in 1982 after 10 months on the job because the director, Robert Nimmo, had compared the chemical defoliant Agent Orange to “teenage acne” and complained that Vietnam vets were “a bunch of crybabies,” Hagel told biographer Berens. 

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