Chuck Hagel is the right man for the job. I’d walk point with him any time
By Max Cleland, Sunday 27 January 2013 07.00 EST
In 1968, Chuck Hagel was in the jungles of Vietnam. He and his brother, Tom, were grunts – US army infantry. From time to time, Chuck and Tom would take turns “walking point,” leading their squad through triple canopy brush. Why would they take such a dangerous mission? “We just thought we were a bit sharper than the other boys,” Chuck recalled years later.
Once, their squad hit a series of booby traps. Some men were killed; others wounded. Chuck was hit in the chest by flying shrapnel. He carries that metal in his body to this day.
On another mission, he and his buddies were on patrol in an armored track vehicle. It hit a landmine. The track blew up. Chuck’s brother was knocked unconscious, his eardrums blown out. Wounded himself, Chuck later said he just started “throwing bodies out” of the track to escape the burning vehicle. He pulled his brother to safety before the vehicle exploded.
President Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. Hagel has agreed. Again, as in Vietnam, he is walking point. He will be the point man for the drawdown in Afghanistan, and the leader to help the Pentagon face the budget crises of this decade.
I served in Vietnam at the same time as Chuck and his brother. We were all blown up in that war in the same year. Later, I served with Chuck in the US Senate for six years. We worked together closely as the unspoken brothers we were.
How have I seen Chuck change over the years? He is hardened by his war experiences, but softer towards his fellow soldiers. By now, he is well versed in the wiles of Washington, especially the US Senate, but sensitive to its demands. He has observed the leviathan that is the Pentagon, but knows it needs a leader it respects.
Like walking point in the jungles of Vietnam, Chuck is now experiencing the political jungle of the nation’s capital. Attacks come from every direction. Booby traps can kill you.
But, what drives Chuck, now, is the same thing that drove him to walk point in Vietnam – to save his comrades. Chuck Hagel is my brother. He is especially a brother to all who are serving in uniform.
If he should become the next secretary of defense, every serviceman and woman will have a friend in him.
Chuck, I’ll walk point with you any time.
Photograph of Max Cleland, from documentary film Odysseus in America. http://odysseusinamericafilm.com/portfolio-view/max-cleland/