Troops In Afghanistan Receive Hagel As Someone Who's Walked In Their Boots

Chuck Hagel is the first Secretary of Defense to have served in Vietnam and the only veteran to hold that job who was not an officer. Hagel was also awarded two purple hearts for war injuries. Last weekend he traveled to Afghanistan and pinned purple hearts on soldiers there and established his credibility with the troops as a secretary of defense who's been in their boots.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Chuck Hagel is freshly back this week from his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary. For the 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan, the distance that separates them from their Pentagon superiors can feel enormous. They received Hagel as one who has walked in their boots. NPR's David Welna was along on the trip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILITARY CADENCE)

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Forty-five miles from Pakistan's border near Jalalabad, an area Osama bin Laden once inhabited, troops from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division's Bastogne Combat Brigade marched to the gates of their base. They were greeted by their commander, Colonel J. P. McGee.

COL. J. P. MCGEE: (Unintelligible) Team Bastogne, how are we doing today?

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

MCGEE: Fantastic. OK. It is a tremendous honor this afternoon to introduce to you our new secretary of defense, Secretary Chuck Hagel.

WELNA: McGee told the troops Hagel was a distinguished warrior himself. As an enlisted sergeant in Vietnam, this new defense secretary and former Republican senator earned two Purple Hearts. He flew in to Jalalabad to pin two Purple Hearts on recently wounded soldiers and to greet the troops. And Hagel presented himself as one of them.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: It is true I was in the United States Army in 1968, Vietnam. I was with the 9th Infantry Division. I wasn't smart enough to be in 101st, but worked with the 101st.

WELNA: The new defense secretary had sobering words for the troops.

HAGEL: These are not easy times for our country, for the world. And certainly, these are not easy times to be part of our Armed Forces.

WELNA: Hagel told them he came to hear their questions and to see what they had to say to him.

HAGEL: Now, what do you want to talk about? What advice do you have?

WELNA: The troops did not offer Hagel any advice. But they did have questions, not one was about the war itself. These troops seemed more concerned about what's going on back in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: How does everything going on in Congress right now going to affect us that are about to retire?

HAGEL: Well, I think the retirement benefits and all the commitments that have been made to all of you will continue to be assured, and we will protect those benefits.

WELNA: Another soldier, this one a woman, sought to pin Hagel down on another politically charged issue.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: Do you plan on pushing so that same-sex partners get all the benefits as other spouses?

HAGEL: Well, the quick answer to the question is yes, absolutely. I made that commitment to the Congress. I made that commitment to the president. It's the right thing to do.

WELNA: Hagel's sense of ease and affinity with the troops really came out later when he shook hands with each one of them.

HAGEL: Son, where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #3: Arkansas, sir.

HAGEL: Where?

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #3: Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

HAGEL: I think I have a bar bill there.

(LAUGHTER)

WELNA: A staff sergeant then stepped up to shake hands.

HAGEL: Staff Sergeant. There was a day I was scared to death of a staff sergeant.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #4: Still should be, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

WELNA: If you didn't catch that, the staff sergeant responded: should be, sir. Throughout his weekend through Afghanistan, Hagel showed similar rapport with the troops. Army soldier Chad Gomez chatted with him at a base in Kabul.

CHAD GOMEZ: It's interesting. Seems like a really good guy, down to earth.

WELNA: The fact that he was a sergeant in Vietnam, does that mean much to you?

GOMEZ: I guess he corresponds to more relative to us, you know, actually have somebody who's been in the military, been there, done that before, showing a little more respect, I guess you could say.

WELNA: Respect the troops seemed to hold equally for retired sergeant, now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. David Welna, NPR News.

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