Saying Au Voir to a Great American Leader – Thank You For Your Service, Secretary Chuck Hagel

by Hank Boerner

Early in 2015 we will be saying farewell – au voir — ‘tlll we see you again (we hope) in public service…it’s so long soon to a great American public service leader: former US Senator and departing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

Secretary Hagel assumed office at the Pentagon as the 24th leader of the world’s most powerful armed services on February 27, 2013 and announced his resignation after less than two short years on November 24, 2014.

News articles noted that no President of the United States since Harry Truman’s day (1945-1953) had to have four defense secretaries. (Hagel was preceded in relatively quick order by Leon Panetta, and Robert Gates in that order – his replacement at Defense will be the fourth of the Obama Administration.)

Which prompted the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee to suggest that the President examine his own foreign policy struggles rather than looking for still another turnover at the Pentagon. Media commentators posited that White House staff interference, Secretary Hagel’s lack of rapport with the President’s staff, disagreements with the top military brass, failures of policy in the volatile Middle East region…and other factors served to undermine Secretary Hagel’s leadership.

May be. But as we bid this outstanding public servant adieu (for now, we hope), it is worthwhile to highlight the extraordinary life and contributions to our American Society of the man….lest they be lost in the welter of negative news reports about his departure (expected soon).

Chuck Hagel was born to a family of modest circumstances in a small town in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. As a boy he rose in the dark hours of morning to deliver newspapers (to help support the family). One the lessons of his childhood was the concept of “service.” It was never a question for the man; this is what “my people did,” he explained. “Service means that when your country calls, you answered the call.”

At Christmas time, 1967, Chuck Hagel found himself in combat in the jungles of Viet Nam, He finagled a way to serve alongside his brother, Tom, and they supported each other under fire. The future US Senator was wounded several times (he holds two Purple Heart medals). After short stays in hospital, he was back in the field. Friends dropped all around him, his brothers-in-arms, killed or wounded.

For the rest of his life Chuck Hagel has kept the lowly grunt in mind, remembering his experiences in war time, and questioning the motives of those who would order men (and now women) into combat. Including President George W. Bush (#41) and VP Richard Cheney (who himself served as Secretary of Defense, March 198-January 1993, in the first Bush #43 presidency). .

Senator Hagel questioned their decision to rush to war in the Middle East and was critical of the unquestioning support of fellow lawmakers as the war drums sounded.

Asked Senator Hagel: “Why are we going to war? Is Saddam [Hussein] really a threat to America? Who will govern after Saddam? How are they going to govern? What is our role to be? How would Iraq be stabilized after the invasion? Why are so few troops going in? What does this have to do with terrorism?” He was called unpatriotic for his views. How many Americans today would have (looking back) wanted those questions answered!

Chuck Hagel received his B.A. from the University of Nebraska and worked in broadcasting before entering government service.  He was also a successful entrepreneur, co-founding Vanguard Cellular Systems in 1984 (it was one of the nation’s first independent cell companies; it was a publicly-traded cell phone company later acquired by AT&T Wireless).

Senator Hagel had a long and distinguished career in the US Senate. He was elected in 1996 and served to 2008. He served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, becoming an expert on world affairs and U.S. foreign policy. He became expert on and had strong opinions about China, Russia, Israel, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and America’s relationship to these countries and regions.  His was a respected voice of reason in the nation’s capital.

If you are with me so far, I’d like to share pieces of the wisdom expressed by Chuck Hagel before he was Secretary of Defense and the number two decision maker next to the president on military matters.  What he believed in and eloquently expressed  in his 2007 memoir – “America – Our Next Chapter…Tough Questions, Straight Answers” — is impressive.

Some of the things he wrote that impressed me….

“In my mind, patriotism is about asking tough questions, not avoiding them.”

“Governing by timidity and fear and giving offense to special interest groups and sources of money is unacceptable, and begins to explain the disappointment with the political process that people are feeling today.”

“We must strengthen our commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership with NATO and the European Union so that it remains the central alliance in our global strategy. NATO will require a new strategic doctrine for the 21st Century and it seems logical that this will take place in concert with the EU…the USA and EU can benefit from teaming up to address global issues, probably including the 2.5 billion people left behind in the world economy.”

“America is still the core of the world economy; however, the rate of change occurring in every marketplace is rapid, intense, and challenging.  We must address the deficiencies in our laws and tax and regulatory codes…”

There’s much, much more in his very readable book, which I suggest would be a good new year read.

As this well-qualified leader leaves the public stage in 2015, we say to him, “well done” and express our thanks for his years of service to the nation.  We are all in his debt.  And we hope that Chuck Hagel will remain on the national stage, sharing his wisdom and experience with the rest of us.  We need him!