Sergeant / Senator Chuck Hagel
Horrors of Vietnam Spur Senator's Foreign Policy Battles
By Frank Bruni, , August 9, 1999
WASHINGTON -- Sgt. Chuck Hagel had watched friends writhe in agony on the jungle floor. He had killed and nearly been killed, the shrapnel in his chest an eerie reminder of his close call.
But the dark hours early one morning in April 1968 were the worst.
As Hagel, 21, and his squad returned to camp, the Vietcong detonated a land mine. Suddenly, the left side of Hagel's chest and part of his face were on fire. He reached for a squad mate, his 19-year-old brother, Tom Hagel, only to feel dead weight.
And he was forced, one time too many, to wonder if either of them would make it out of Vietnam alive.
Somehow they did, after spending time recovering from their injuries in adjacent hospital beds. Along the way, Chuck Hagel vowed that he would ultimately try to have some influence over America's foreign policy, a way to guard against the horrors that he endured.
When he and his brother return to Vietnam this week for the first time in 30 years, to attend the opening of a new American consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Hagel will go as the junior senator from Nebraska and an outspoken Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
"It'll be a little emotional, I suspect" said Hagel, 52, as he reflected on the war in an interview last week in his Capitol Hill office.
"You can't help but carry that experience around with you every day -- every day -- for the rest of your life," Hagel said. "It's buried in your subconscious. You don't pull it out all the time. But it's there."
He said it was one reason why he criticized and confronted other Senate Republicans for delaying the confirmation of Richard Holbrooke as chief American delegate to the United Nations, which the Senate finally carried out last week.
Some of Hagel's Republican colleagues had been holding Holbrooke's nomination hostage as they made unrelated demands of the Clinton administration, and the U.N. post remained vacant for more than a year.
To the senator, that showed an irresponsible disregard for the high stakes of international relations -- stakes that Vietnam helped him to appreciate.
In less than three years in the Senate, Hagel has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to buck party leaders. While they questioned American military involvement in Kosovo, he questioned whether the United States was involved enough -- or, rather, whether the United States had sent a clear enough signal that it would go as far as necessary to stamp out Yugoslav aggression.
That might have solved matters more quickly, he said, and the lesson he gleaned from Vietnam was not that the United States should not have been there, but that a gradual buildup can be the least conscionable strategy, keeping American forces in harm's way for too long.
Not that Hagel is a hawk. He said he worries, in fact, about some of the talk regarding China and Taiwan.
"When we say we're going to defend Taiwan, what are we saying there?" he asked. "Are we saying that if the Chinese send a missile over, we're at war with China? It's a big thing to say. I think we're rather careless."
Hagel comes across as a man who is anything but careless. He said he learned early to be responsible and strong. The oldest of four boys, he was 16 when his father, a trouble-shooter for lumber companies in Nebraska, died of a heart attack. His mother, a secretary, worked both days and nights to keep the family afloat. Hagel paid for his own clothes by working odd jobs.
He took a break from college before graduating, then enlisted in the Army. Tom followed, and through a fluke that neither of them can explain, they ended up in the same squad in Vietnam.
But while Chuck Hagel came to see the war as a noble cause that was ineffectually pursued, Tom concluded that it was an immoral waste. Chuck emerged as a relatively conservative Republican, Tom as a Democrat.
"We used to literally get into fistfights over this," said Tom, who teaches law at the University of Dayton in Ohio. The brothers have since mended fences, but Tom still questions Chuck's politics.
"I've never seen him express any overwhelming concern about poverty in America, and I think a good example of that is the tax-cut bill that's going on," Tom Hagel said, adding that the richest Americans will benefit the most. Chuck Hagel, a believer in more frugal government, voted for the measure.
After returning from Vietnam in 1969, Chuck Hagel finished college. He worked as an aide to a Republican congressman, and also as a lobbyist. In 1981, he briefly held the second-highest position at the Veterans Administration.
Then he struck gold, turning $5,000 into a cellular telephone company that made him a multimillionaire. His wealth helped him engineer a surprise victory in the 1996 Senate race.
Hagel and his second wife, Lilibet, have a daughter, 8, and son, 6. Their photographs share space in his office, along with tributes to Vietnam.
His face no longer bears evidence of his burn wounds, which took a decade to heal. But the memories remain, and he said he takes from them what he needs while keeping them in their place.
Although he plans to visit the places where he fought, Hagel said: "It has nothing to do with closure. I think we get into way too much psychobabble."
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 1999 by Neil Mishalov