Friday the 13th is, or was, Chuck Hagel’s last day at the Pentagon. The nation’s 24th defense secretary is being replaced by a very different sort of person — a renowned intellect and shaper of policy no doubt, but not a product of the American heartland the way Hagel is. Born to Charles and Betty Hagel on October 4, 1946 in North Platte, Nebraska, Chuck was to be the oldest of six siblings in a family that moved around a lot. Hagel volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, and became an infantry squad leader of the same unit to which his brother Tom was assigned. According to Hagel’s Wikipedia entry, the two brothers saved each other’s lives on separate occasions.
Hagel was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds suffered during the war, returning home to become a broadcast personality in Omaha — the job for which he had trained before joining the Army. From that point onward, though, the chronicle of his career unfolded like a case study of American success. He co-founded a highly successful cellular company, became an investment banker, was elected to the Senate for two terms, became a fixture in Washington policy circles, and then was selected by President Obama to be defense secretary. He didn’t serve long in the latter position — none of Obama’s defense secretaries has — but during his tenure he proved to be a thoughtful and hard-working steward of the joint force.
The defense secretary’s job is difficult, and Hagel departed under trying circumstances. The harshest interpretation of that departure is that he was fired. A more accurate assessment would be that he was temperamentally at odds with what the White House thought it needed. Many of the challenges Secretary Hagel faced were not anticipated by the Obama Administration’s strategic planning guidance issued in early 2012, and he tended to be eclipsed in senior deliberations by more sharp-elbowed players. But he served honorably and honestly, never losing sight of how his actions affected the men and women in the armed forces. Whatever his failings may have been, he will be remembered as a selfless patriot who tried hard to do the right thing.
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