FORT BLISS, Texas — With a stop at this desert Army post on the last leg of his farewell tour as Pentagon chief, Chuck Hagel came full circle.
In 1967, a 20-year-old Hagel arrived at Fort Bliss for basic training, soon to be shipped to Vietnam for a life-changing war experience that gave him the distinction, nearly a half-century later, of being the only enlisted combat veteran to serve as secretary of defense.
Hagel is unlikely to be remembered as among the most accomplished defense chiefs, although he took on several tough problems including the transition out of a U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and trouble inside the U.S. nuclear missile corps.
He abruptly resigned on Nov. 24 under pressure from President Barack Obama, cutting short a tenure that never seemed to gain full traction after starting on a sour note in February 2013 with a contentious Senate confirmation hearing. Hagel agreed not to leave until his successor was in place; Ashton Carter, the nominee, is expected to be confirmed by the Senate in February.
Mindful that his time atop the U.S. military is ending, Hagel came to Fort Bliss to speak Thursday at the Army Sergeants Major Academy, the professional military education program for noncommissioned officers and enlisted soldiers, and to take a trip down memory lane at an Army post that traces its roots to the Indian wars of the mid-19th century.
It was his first return visit. Much has changed — not least the fact that the soldiers here now are all volunteers. In Hagel's day, the ranks were filled with draftees, many reluctant or resentful, many unsuited for the rigors of combat.
In his remarks at the academy, Hagel recalled the harsh life of a recruit in the Army of the 1960s.
"You are often asked, 'How dumb are you? How could you be so stupid?' That's a hard one to answer, actually," he said.
Hagel toured the base, which now is home to the Army's 1st Armored Division. It was the final stop on a three-day farewell tour that also took him to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California and aboard the USS America, the Navy's newest amphibious assault ship, as it cruised off San Diego.
In a 2002 oral history interview for the Library of Congress, Hagel recalled arriving here on a train from his home state of Nebraska. He facetiously described Fort Bliss as "that garden spot" in the desert outside of El Paso.
"Oh, it was hot," he said. "Sand, desert, rocks."
He remembered arriving in the pre-dawn darkness in May 1967 with a few other young Nebraskans, minds whirling with wonder and worry at what lay ahead.
"You get a very abrupt awakening when the drill sergeant starts screaming at you," Hagel recalled. "A new jarring gong of reality set in. And from that moment on it was a different world."
He remembered his drill sergeant promising to toughen up the newcomers, "because if I fail, you get your head blown off in Vietnam."
On Dec. 4, 1967, Hagel left for the war and spent a year in Vietnam as an infantryman, rising to the rank of sergeant.
He returned home with two Purple Hearts for war wounds — including severe burns to his face and shrapnel that lodged in his chest from a Claymore mine detonation — and a new appreciation for how hardship can be a source of strength.
"It probably did as much to shape me and mold me and affect me as any one experience I ever had in my life," he said in an unusually reflective moment Tuesday at Whiteman Air Force Base. "Everything I have done in my life I have drawn on that experience in the military."
After Vietnam, Hagel attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha on the GI Bill. He served as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration during the Reagan administration and later co-founded a cellular telephone network. He won election to the Senate as a Republican in 1996 and served two terms.
During his two years as Obama's secretary of defense, Hagel rarely talked in detail about his war experiences, even in front of soldiers who might have sensed a bond with a former sergeant from a distant generation. Aides say Hagel is naturally reluctant to highlight his Vietnam experience, feeling the spotlight should be on the challenges faced by today's troops.
When he did mention it during troop talks, he would often say he served "back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth," and leave it at that.
Hagel did well in basic training at Fort Bliss. He was honored as the outstanding leader among boot camp soldiers, and was chosen for a top-secret program to train with a new weapon: the Redeye missile, the first U.S. shoulder-fired heating-seeking missile.
He did Redeye missile training at the White Sands Missile Range adjacent to Fort Bliss and had orders to deploy to Germany. But Hagel had other ideas. He decided he'd rather go to Vietnam, where the U.S. was getting more deeply involved amid a rising tide of war protests in the U.S. He got his orders changed — and overcame official suspicion that he was crazy for having done so.
Looking back on it all, Hagel says one of the more important lessons was, "You cannot force things in life." At age 68 and his Pentagon tenure coming to a close, he has no specific plan for the future. He intends to do what he says he has always done.
"I've let the currents take me," he said, "and that's what I'm going to do this time and see what happens."
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