Following standard operating procedure, one of the three soldiers stood watch while the other two slept on their tarps. Early one morning when Hagel was standing watch, he heard a clang. At first, he thought it was a cow bell. Then he realized what he was hearing was no herd of cows but a large group of Viet Cong, moving equipment right in front him. He actually heard whispered conversation in Vietnamese.
"It was so close you could almost reach out and touch them," he said.
He woke his two squad members, covering their mouths with his hands so they wouldn't cry out.
"Grab your rifle; grab my boot and crawl," he whispered.
The three soldiers slithered out in a human chain, Hagel leading the way. "We knew the VC were coming right on top of us, getting closer and closer."
Hagel had the radio with him, and once the squad was well away from the Viet Cong, he called the base camp to report what had happened. They were ordered to stay outside the base camp that night, in case they were being followed.
When it was daylight, they went back to try to retrieve what they had left behind a few hours earlier. Everything was gone. "The VC had been there and had picked it all up," Hagel said. The story was still frightening when Hagel told it decades later. But that encounter didn't end in injury the way two others did.
By some quirk of Army bureaucracy, Hagel and his brother Tom served in the same squad for most of a year. They spent a month during the Tet offensive in ferocious house-to-house combat, and they survived without injuries. Horrific as it was, it wasn't as frightening as those listening patrols had been, Hagel said. "When you're in a firefight, all hell breaks loose. You're not scared. You're not thinking about anything except what you're doing."
However, danger came in many forms in Vietnam.
In March 1968, the brothers were walking an ambush patrol when the soldiers at the front of the column tripped a booby trap, and mines full of shrapnel, planted in trees, exploded all around the troops. That time Tom saved Chuck's life, wrapping cloths around Chuck's chest to stop extensive bleeding. The former senator still has some of that shrapnel in his chest.
A month later, after the brothers had recovered in an Army hospital, they were riding in a personnel carrier when a land mine exploded under the vehicle. Chuck thought Tom, the turret gunner, had been killed by the blast. He started pulling Tom and others from the carrier, trying to get everyone out before the ammunition in the carrier blew up. But he was still too close when the inevitable explosion came and set him on fire, burning his face severely. Tom survived, but, again, the Hagel boys were on their way to the hospital together.
Chuck Hagel remembers it well, lying in a medevac helicopter, waiting to be airlifted out of the jungle and listening to Linda Ronstadt singing on the radio: "You and I travel to the beat of a different drum." And Hagel remembers saying to himself, "If I ever get out, and if I ever can influence anything, I will do all I can to prevent war."
Almost 40 years later, the memory was still fresh. "Not that I'm a pacifist," he said. "I'm a hard-edged realist. I understand the world as it is. But war is a terrible thing. There's no glory, only suffering."
Some things are worth fighting and dying for, Hagel said, but going to war should be a last resort.
Hagel arrived in Vietnam as an E3 private first class and was promoted to an E4 specialist, technically a corporal. Then he was promoted to sergeant. He downplays his movement up in the ranks, saying the United States was losing so many troops in 1967 and '68 that soldiers often advanced quickly. But Gene Bacon, who served with Hagel, said it was more than just chance: "He was very articulate, very bright. He commanded real respect from the officers right away."
He earned two Purple Hearts, three Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge. And he came home still convinced that, horrendous as the war had been, it was legitimate and justifiable. Decades later, though, Hagel began to investigate the background of the war in Vietnam. By late 2004 he had tried to read everything he could find about the history of Indochina, about the French involvement there before the Americans went in. He began to doubt his earlier faith in the American government's motivations behind the war.
When he listened to tapes of then-President Lyndon Johnson's phone calls discussing the war with Georgia Senator Richard Russell, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, Hagel cringed. He began to believe that the war had been waged less to defend the United States and the world from the spread of communism than for "an abstraction of policy" and to save face.
His own very personal experience with the horrors of war has created a frame of reference for his consideration of policy decisions. Leaders who served in war "may have even more of an obligation to think through these big geopolitical issues and, more importantly, ask the tough questions," Hagel told a newspaper in 2004. That was his philosophy when he was in the Senate, and it's likely to be his philosophy at the Department of Defense.
Having been there makes a difference.