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Interview with Senator Charles Hagel [8/2002]

Mike Perry:

Hi. I'm Mike Perry. With me is Dr. David Taylor. We're from the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. And today, we're here to interview Senator Charles Hagel as part of the Veterans History Project. Good morning, sir.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Thank you. Good morning.

Mike Perry:

Sir, one of the first questions I'd like to ask about is your family environment and did it promote your desire to serve during the Vietnam War?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We were raised in little towns in Nebraska where the local Legion club and the VFW hall were really the centers of the universe. All the social activity and patriotic activity emanated from those Legion and VFW clubs. My father served in the South Pacific during World War II with the 13th Army Air Corps. He was a radio operator/tail gunner on a B-25 bomber overseas two and a half years so saw a lot of combat. My grandfather was in World War I. So we were a family that grew up with the blue Legionnaire's cap and a sense of responsibility and a sense of commitment to this country. You didn't think about it. If the country was at war or if there was a need, everybody served, and you just anticipated your service.

Mike Perry:

Did they talk much about their military service in and about the house or in the neighborhood?

Senator Charles Hagel:

My father passed away suddenly when I was in high school, but as my brothers and I got acquainted with some of the things that he did in the war -- and he was fairly forthcoming. It took him a little time to do that. But he had, during that two and a half years in the South Pacific, taken a lot of photographs from his perch there on the B-25. And that was a starting point for discussion about the war. My grandfather would talk about it, my great-grandfather.

Mike Perry:

Okay. You were 21 when you entered the Army. What had you done since high school, and why did you go in when you were 21?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, I -- I tried college. I tried three colleges actually. It was not in the best interest of those academic institutions to keep me, nor in my best interest, so I don't have a -- a academic record that would be or certainly anyone would want to emulate. I worked for radio stations, did different jobs in and out of school. And I was called home one day by the draft board --

Mike Perry:

Okay.

Senator Charles Hagel:

-- and said, "Young man, you've got six months to get back in college. We have levies, and they're big levies. They're coming down," as you know, '67, '68, the big buildup. And I sat before the draft board and said, "No. I think the best thing for me is to go in the Army. It may not be the best thing for the Army, but I think that's the way to get all this straightened out." I was the oldest of four boys. I mentioned earlier my father passed away, and I just was not coming together the way I should come together. There was a war going on in Vietnam. I felt a sense of some responsibility. So I said, "No. Let's -- let's go." And so I volunteered for the draft, went in the Army and celebrated my 21st birthday down at White Sands Missile Range.

Mike Perry:

You were a draftee then, not a enlistee?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Technically, I was, but I volunteered for the draft.

Mike Perry:

Okay. You were a volunteer --

Senator Charles Hagel:

I said no. I could have gone back and gotten school and gotten out of it. But I said, "No. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to volunteer." And I did it right there, and I did.

Mike Perry:

What military occupational specialty, MOS, did they initially give you?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I had the most famous of all, 11-bravo, that which is the infantryman MOS, which I didn't fight that. I thought that was -- if you're going to be in the Army, you want to be a warrior. I didn't think it was very romantic and heroic to be a cook, although cooks are important. But I was glad to -- and very proud actually to be assigned as an infantryman. And that's what I was all the way through.

Mike Perry:

You took basic training at Fort Bliss?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

AIT?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Fort Ord, California.

Mike Perry:

Fort Ord. Could you discuss those experiences briefly?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Interesting. Those who have been through basic training know that basic training is a very unique experience. When I was there in '67, it was the summer of '67, in Fort Bliss, which is -- for those who are unaware of that garden spot, it's in the desert right outside of El Paso, Texas. Oh, it was hot. Sand, desert, rocks. I was in with a lot of kids who had never had any organization at all in their life. They were -- they were drafted from Navajo reservations. We had Hispanic kids. In that part of the country, you threw them all in. We had kids who had quit school in seventh grade. We had some kids who'd never worn boots; hardly shoes. And it was a group that I had never ever quite experienced before. Tough group. And of course basic training is tough. And they -- they need to make you tough. And it was a survivable -- a survival issue for all of us because the drill sergeant would say, "Boy, I'm going to teach you to be mean and tough because if I fail, you get your head blown off in Vietnam." And that's -- everybody got shaky. AIT was a little more civil. I thought I had done everything right in life to be assigned to an AIT training in Fort Ord, California, right close to the ocean, near Carmel and Pebble Beach. And that was as good as I thought life would ever get for me. And as you know, they take a little of the pressure off of you in AIT. After that, I was assigned to go to the middle -- to the midrange, at that time, top secret redeye missile gun course. They had selected ten of us in the Army units across the country. This was the first shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile that was all top secret. And I was going to Germany after they trained us, and we would all be moved into NATO units over there. The Russians were not supposed to know about this. But I volunteered to go to Vietnam, which all my friends thought I was out of my mind, that I'd had too much of that Tijuana tequila when I -- when I did it, but nonetheless, I just felt it was the right thing to do. A war was going on. They needed their best people, and I didn't want to be in Germany when there was a war going on in Vietnam.

Mike Perry:

So the drill sergeants you had were very conscious of the war and were really focused more on preparing you for the war in Vietnam, rather than maybe service in Germany?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Oh, yes. There wasn't any question because we were going through the buildup and the levies were coming down. And that buildup, as you know, got to be over half a million men in Vietnam. And when I was in basic training in '67, we were moving toward that peak of the '68 time frame when I was there in Vietnam, all of '68. So the drill sergeants knew that most all those kids that they had were going to Vietnam. And they reminded us every day. This wasn't a game, guys. Pay attention because this will probably be the difference between you coming back from Vietnam and not. So there was an expectation, and they talked about it openly. And I think it did focus most of us most of the time.

Mike Perry:

You said a lot of folks from the southwest. Did Fort Bliss draw mostly kids out of Texas, Nebraska, Arizona?

Senator Charles Hagel:

New Mexico.

Mike Perry:

New Mexico.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Uh-huh. Utah. That's where the main focus was, and that was the recruiting statewide area. We -- I went down with five friends from Nebraska. We were inducted in Omaha and then took a train down to Fort Bliss. Got off that train at 3:00 in the morning, hot, terrible. Everybody was unsure of what was going to happen next, and you get a very abrupt awakening when the drill sergeant starts screaming at you. And I was with one guy, who's a dear, dear friend. His name is Joe Swierczek, and he's still in Columbus, Nebraska. He, among other things, was a drummer in a rock band. And so he had long hair, and he had these wild bell-bottom white pants on and a wild blue-and-white polka dot shirt with tennis shoes. And nobody could pronounce his name, Swierczek. It sounds easy, but when you look at it, it is not easy to pronounce, and you're not sure what it is. And these drill sergeants got us off the train at 3:00 that morning and -- and a new jarring gong of reality set in. And from that moment on, it was a different world.

Mike Perry:

You finished advanced individual training. We fell into jargon, and that's partly what --

David Taylor:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

He's here to make sure I don't --

David Taylor:

Yes. That's okay.

Mike Perry:

And then you shipped out to Vietnam. Where did you process through?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, I -- as I said, from AIT, I went to White Sands Missile Range to take two months of training with the redeye missile gun. Then we were sent to Fort Bliss -- or Fort Dix, New Jersey, where we were to process out to Germany. And that's where I took my orders down to the processing station and handed them in, said I'd like to go to Vietnam. And at that point, there was a hush in the orderly room and said, "Young man, sit down." And a chaplain came out. A psychiatrist came out. We had two majors come out. Took me aside. And obviously, they were concerned that I was running away from something. And I don't think you probably found that many guys that would come in with orders to Germany and say, "I want to go to Vietnam." And we -- we talked for about three hours and what the motives were. So they said, "All right. We'll take you off -- off the manifest, and you stay here." And I hung around Fort Dix, New Jersey for about two weeks until they could reissue orders. And they sent me back home to Nebraska for about five days. And we transitioned out through Oakland to Travis.

Mike Perry:

Did you fly or did you boat to Vietnam?

Senator Charles Hagel:

No. We flew. I think most everybody was flying at that point.

Mike Perry:

At that point in time. You arrive in-country on December 4, 1967, I think --

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

-- according to some of your bios. What was your initial impression when you got off the plane?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I suppose like anyone, you are scared. It's hot. It's unfamiliar. It's oppressive. There is great angst, uncertainty. As we were walking down the steps, moving -- we got in there early in the morning. It was like 6:00 in the morning. Even at 6:00 in the morning, the heat was oppressive. We were walking toward the processing area, and a bunch of the grizzled old veterans that were coming back that were going to get on the bird we were on to go back home were shouting things at us. "Hey, baby. Charlie's going to love you. They're going to cut your ears off." And I mean, saying every outrageous thing that you can imagine. Of course we're all very staid, solid, marching along and not trying to let any of this affect us. Well, of course it did. But you never remember that entry point. You can see it probably as long as you live, what it looked like and what you did and what you heard and the whole thing closing in on you in a way you'd never ever quite experienced anything.

David Taylor:

Did you question your decision to go there at that point?

Senator Charles Hagel:

No. I never did. I don't think most of us -- well, most of us were sent there. I mean, most of us were draftees that fought over there. And you didn't have any choice, but I did. And I never ever questioned it. Sure, I was scared like everybody else, but I -- I saw it, first of all, as a sense of responsibility, purpose, patriotism. I was glad I was there. That wasn't always the case, but I never ever looked back.

Mike Perry:

Could you discuss the process of being a junior -- probably a private at this point in time?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. A private.

Mike Perry:

Of how they handled you from the time you got off the plane to the time you got assigned to B company, 47th.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, my orders when I went over there had me assigned to the 109th light infantry brigade, but not unlike when you get over there, depending on where the levies were coming down, the 9th Infantry Division, eventually where I went, had just been hit pretty hard. So they needed new manpower with the 9th, so they levied some of us that were going into different units onto the 9th. You don't have many privileges as a private, and you expect that. I didn't think that I was going to have many privileges. But you were handled in a way -- and I think it's different today, and it should be -- in a way that you don't ever know anything. You're never told anything. Nothing is ever explained. You do what you're told and damn -- be damn glad of it. And everything is based on survival. And you'd better listen carefully. We're going to say it one time. This could be the difference between you coming back on your feet or in a body bag. And that did get people's attention. And of course you did all the other chores while you were waiting to get assigned. And then we went through a jungle school there for about five days that every -- everyone went through. Then you were shipped out to your units. And they'd back the trucks up, and they had a manifest, and they'd call your name. And we would drop some guys off at one unit and keep going on another unit. And then wherever your destination was, they -- the sergeant had a manifest, and he'd call out, and you'd jump out of the truck, and that was home.

Mike Perry:

That's when you found out you were going to bravo company to --

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

-- the 47th, when you got off the truck basically?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

You talk about that five-day training. It's highlighted in the division after action report. It says, "An excellent transition for the folks who came in." How -- can you discuss what you did in that five-day course?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, what you do is you essentially summarize all you learned in basic training and AIT, the combat parts of it. They had mock villages set up, and you would run mock ambush patrols and really simulate different combat actions. And I thought it was pretty effective, booby traps, and then you would have classes as to what to look for and be careful of. And it was a -- an effective five-day process. And I thought it was very important, simply because it brings you back current with what you learn, and it's relevant, and it's applicable. And from here on, and as they keep -- and kept saying, this is not training anymore, guys. This is real stuff.

David Taylor:

Is this what you called jungle school, or is that something different than that?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, essentially it was a jungle school. It was a training jungle school, but the technical jungle schools are usually what we think of for special ops and special forces.

Mike Perry:

Yeah. They described the last -- the last 36 -- or 18 hours of it was an extended patrol through the -- through the bush. There were 4,000 replacements into the 9th Infantry Division, enlisted replacements into the 9th Infantry Division between November and January. How well could they prepare you when they were processing that many young soldiers into the organization?

Senator Charles Hagel:

They prepare you as well as they can. There's no question, when you -- to your point, when you are dealing in those kinds of numbers, that there are gaps. But it's like everything. It's the overall good, and you -- you process on the basis of not the individual, but the overall unit. And that's what, of course, they teach you. And that is drilled into you in every service, especially in combat, that the guy next to you may be the guy that saves your life. It may be because of him you either die or live. If he's not paying attention, then you're in trouble. That's effective, and they work that, but again, in the kind of numbers we're talking about, you're going to have guys that are and were not prepared to be in those situations. And a lot of guys cracked up. A lot of guys were -- either hurt themselves or someone else or got others killed or got themselves killed because they weren't ready for it.

Mike Perry:

You were assigned to Camp Martin Cox, I believe was the base camp. Could you describe what that was like in 1967?

Senator Charles Hagel:

The division base camp at that time was in Bearcat, which was not too far from Saigon and Long Binh. We were transitioning out of Bearcat, down into the Mekong Delta, where the main division base camp later was placed in -- I think around June or July of 1968. My battalion base camp was the furthest base camp in the delta of any. And it was in a little town near or actually right next to Binh Phouc, which I have revisited. The berm is still there. The same flagpole location is still there. The village looks the same, 32 years afterward. You always associated a camp around -- or not always, but many times in the delta, around some village, and you would obviously try to pick a friendly village, but you always knew there were VC in and out of there all night. And of course, all those villages, even though we, most of the time, tried to find secure areas, we would always find trapdoors and munitions hidden and bazookas and RPGs. And you never could trust the village. And it was pretty spartan living. You had a berm, and it was built up. And everybody had guard duty. And a regular evening was to -- was to get rocketed, mortared. Sometimes it was intense. Sometimes you'd get challenged with an intense rocket mortar attack. And then you'd actually have a -- I think the worst case we had was a battalion of VC and VA move in, and it was almost all VC where I was. And if they sensed a breach or a weakness, they would -- they would try to take a wall down. But that was the kind of life, minute to minute, that you dealt with. And you never could let your guard down. And of course when Tet hit in '68, that changed things.

Mike Perry:

How long from the time you arrived into the unit did you -- was it till you conducted your first combat operation?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I think we were right out on an ambush patrol the next day. We got in there in the afternoon, and they took us to the tents. And we -- we were assigned our bunk and a locker. And first sergeant came over and buttoned us all down, and then the sergeant major came over. Then I think in about an hour -- about an hour later, we had a company commander come in and talk to us. And then we were then assem -- I think assembled together as a company. And then we went into our units, and we were then selected for different squads in the company. And then we went to the chow hall and had dinner and were told that we would be moving out at -- I think 5:00 the next morning, and it would be a five- or six-day reconnaissance or ambush patrol. And that started.

Mike Perry:

Had you done any mechanized training prior to arrival in the unit?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Very little mechanized training. Very little.

Mike Perry:

What was your first duty position?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I walked a lot of point, and my brother Tom and I together walked a lot of point, which was all right. I mean, it's -- you know what happens to a lot of point men, but I always felt a little better if I was up front than somebody else. And then when my brother Tom came in with me, then we both walked point almost always together. But they would rotate those points, too. They have to.

David Taylor:

Can you tell more about what was involved in that, what you were paying attention to as point man?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, a point man, as I think most people know, is the individual who was out front. And these are usually squad- sized patrols, sometimes a company-sized patrol, depending on the mission. And you have the front -- physically the front position, but also the responsibility of essentially not walking your squad or your company into an ambush or a trap. So you had to be very, very focused on the peripheral vision and the antenna and just the sense and the instincts and something doesn't look right or grenades hanging in trees, which booby traps were just a way of life. You dealt with that all the time. And just generally having an antenna that's on 360 degrees all the time. And there were a lot of guys who just didn't pay attention to it. They just -- it's just the way they were. And I, again, always felt better if I was up front than maybe some others.

Mike Perry:

Division after action reports -- I mean your old brigade after action reports -- would talk about roadrunner operations. Did you conduct these patrols in coordination or during some of these road-running operations?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We did. These were at night, and we would sweep roads because obviously roads were critically important. And we needed to do that because the VC would get on these roads at night and plant bombs, various imaginative booby traps on these roads, or they would do something to continue to keep us off-balance in the delta especially. And so our APCs, armored personnel carriers, would run those roads at night. And then these different patrols would -- would -- this would be one mission, if it was just a security mission, run those patrols at night, would be to then stay on the sides in the bush, and usually we'd be 100 yards out. And then if we were able to get any VC trapped between the APCs on the roads and our flanks, then we could put them in a crossfire. Another -- another objective would be if we got reports that VC were in that area, then the APCs would handle it a little differently. But -- but there were many times when we got hit very, very badly at night because you were sitting ducks. And you ran those APCs up and down that road at night. It's so dark, you can't see in front of you. And you can't use lights. And you were -- you were there. It's like a carnival, and the little ducks fly -- flash by. I mean, those RPGs would take those -- one night, we lost four RPGs and a number of guys. So we were there to protect a little bit the -- the APCs, as they would run these -- these missions.

Mike Perry:

So you'd try to avoid riding in the APCs?

Senator Charles Hagel:

You didn't find it particularly healthy to be on those armored personnel carriers. And they kept most of the men off because they knew it, too. There's no point in losing six or seven men to one rocket. So it's better to lose a driver and a machine gunner. If you're going to lose men, lose two, not seven.

Mike Perry:

So basically the APCs provided you additional firepower?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. We had a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the top, which is a tremendous, effective machine gun which has been used in a number of wars. Then we had M60 machine guns on the sides. And we always had a .50 caliber gunner in the turret, and he usually was the operator, radio operator as well and had communications. And then the driver. So sometimes we'd put two men in there to run those M60s on both sides. And it was the -- it was a -- it was full ammunition. That was the other problem with them. So if an APG hit them, I mean, they usually went up like that (snaps fingers) because you had grenades. You had all kinds of ammunition in those things where you'd essentially store it.

Mike Perry:

You talked about booby traps out in the -- off the roads. What about mines on the roads?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We had to deal with mines on the roads all the time, and that was -- again was part of the road-running operation at night, so that we wouldn't allow the VC to get into those areas or give up that area to the VCs. But -- but it was a constant pressure and part of our mission in the delta. There was a great amount of commerce that came up from the delta, produce and various staples, rice, that especially Saigon needed. And much of that productivity and cultivation came from the delta. So the commercial part of keeping those waterways open and keeping those highways open was important, plus networking troops, too. I mean, you wouldn't want to find yourself in a situation where you're cut off and you can't get reinforcements other than the helicopter. The eagle flights were critical there. So there was a strategic value, too, to keep those waterways and those highways open.

Mike Perry:

When you look at the after action reports in December and January, December 1967, January 1968, division intel folks saw the VC being rearmed with AK-47s. They saw the introduction of the RPGs in larger numbers and the introduction of 120-millimeter mortars. Did the old-timers that had been there for a while get a sense in the period up to Tet that something wasn't right as -- in the months prior to that -- that major attack?

Senator Charles Hagel:

As I look back on that time, I now realize that there was an additional pressure put on the senior guys that -- to your point, that there was a sense something was going on. The intelligence sharing with the guys further down was nonexistent. I mean, I don't -- I don't think even a lot of our senior sergeants were told much. I don't know how far down the officer corps got on what was going on. Of course we were never told everything. But I don't think our sergeants were. But the ones that had been around a little bit instinctively knew something was up. And I -- and as I now look back on it over -- over 30 years and think of what was said and actions, I connect it better. At the time, I didn't. I mean, I'm there like most everybody else. You're just trying to survive hour to hour, and you were not thinking grand geopolitical or strategic thoughts in those days.

Mike Perry:

Before I go on to Tet, your brother Tom eventually joins you. When did he join you? You said he came -- I saw some reports that said he came to Vietnam in January, about six weeks behind you.

Senator Charles Hagel:

He did.

Mike Perry:

When did he join you in your unit?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Tom came about six weeks after I did. He was assigned to the 11th Cav, armored cav, up on -- at that time on the DMZ working with the Marines. The commander of the 11th Cav was then Colonel George Patton, son of the famous General Patton; he himself later to become a general, three-star general. And Tom was assigned to his headquarters company up there for about a month. And they saw a lot of action up on the DMZ, working with the Marines. And then Tom and I -- well, not then. Roll back. Tom first got into country. We talked one time over the phone and just happened I was in base camp for about three-day standdown when he arrived, so it fit. And we decided that I would put a transfer request in to go where he is, and he would put a transfer request to come to where I am, knowing full well the way this all works, we would never ever see each other, but maybe once during the time we were there in Vietnam, we might run across each other. So he was there up on the DMZ with the 11th Cav for a month. And we were out on reconnaissance patrol one day, and the sergeant came up to me and said, "Hagel, come on back here. There's a chopper coming in to pick you up and taking you back to base camp." Of course, that's all they tell you. They don't tell you anything. And I said, "Well, why is that?" "Well, I don't know. They didn't tell me. They said get Hagel out of the field. Bring him back to base camp." Well, the first thing you think of is something's happened to your brother. So I ask him. I said, "Well, sergeant, is this about my brothers or something there that I need to know about?" He said -- he said, "If I would -- if I knew, I'd tell you," he said, "but you don't need to know that. Your instructions are to get on that chopper, it's going to be here in an hour, and get the hell out of here." I said, "Okay." So the chopper got there. I got on the chopper and went back to base camp. Walked to my tent. Was in the tent all afternoon. Nobody said anything to me. And I went over to the orderly room and asked the clerks why I was brought back. And they said, "We don't know." I said, "Do I have orders to leave?" "Well, I don't know." So eventually I went to the chow hall that night, and the first sergeant got me and said, "By the way, Hagel," he said, "your brother's coming down. He's been transferred to your unit." I said, "When's he going to arrive?" "He'll be here tomorrow morning." Okay. So I went back to my tent. And 8:00 the next morning, they choppered my brother in. They assigned him to my squad. We were physically together from right after Tet -- he got -- it was after Tet when he arrived. It was probably two weeks after Tet or two to three weeks after Tet. So from that point on, we were physically together the entire time. And then I left December 4, and I think he went back in January '69.

David Taylor:

Was that an unusual thing for brothers to end up in the same outfit?

Senator Charles Hagel:

It was. You know the rules, the Sullivan rule. But he had also volunteered to go to Vietnam. He also had orders to go to Germany. So when we both volunteered to go to Vietnam and we essentially forfeited the Sullivan brothers rule -- Although when I got to the 9th Division, there was a brother team there that was with the scout platoon. And they were serving their second tour together on scout platoon. They were from Michigan, had big -- big -- both of them big guys, flaming red hair. Big red handlebar mustaches. Tough guys. I don't know whatever happened -- I don't even remember their names, but that's the only other brother team that I knew. I'm sure there were other brother teams there, but -- at some point, but I did know those guys.

David Taylor:

How did that change your experience, to have your brother with you?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We both agreed that it would -- if we're going to be there, it would be -- it would be good to be together. Now, my mother was a little concerned about that.

David Taylor:

I was going to ask that.

Senator Charles Hagel:

But my mother's a very strong woman and prays a lot, and I think she overall felt that maybe if we were going to be there, then it might be good to have us together and there'd be some comfort in that, knowing full well that something could happen and she could lose both sons at the same time.

Mike Perry:

When Tet broke out, where were you?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We were securing the rubber plantation not too far from Long Binh, the old Michelin rubber plantation. And so my units were the first one into Long Binh as that ammo dump was -- was being blown. And of course, they were getting -- the VC were getting into MACV headquarters, and as you know, part of the objective there was to take Westmoreland hostage. And nobody knew what was going on. Something -- something was happening. It was pretty big, but (snaps fingers) we were pulled up out of the Michelin -- we left -- we left ponchos. We left everything right on the ground. And we grabbed guns and were on those APCs and down that road. And I was the third track in the Long -- got into the Long Binh ammo dump. And as we were getting into the ammo dump, it started to blow. I have a picture in my office -- sometime you'll have to stop by and see it -- that was sent to me a couple of years ago by a guy I did not know and still have not met, but he was in my -- he was in another company, alpha company that was right behind bravo company on the tracks going in. And he took this picture on his Kodak camera, and it looks like a nuclear mushroom cloud that morning when the ammo dump went up. There were two tracks in front of me that hit -- that hit -- hit this. Essentially as vaporized as you can be in one of those. We were the third track in. And we got the blowback on it. And the force was so bad that it essentially picked the track up a little bit and turned us around and took us right into a ditch. Some of us were burned a little bit, but nobody was seriously hurt.

David Taylor:

When you say "track," do you mean a half-track vehicle?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Armored personnel carrier. APC.

Mike Perry:

In the weeks after, what -- what other operations did you participate in?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, we were doing a lot of -- well, we -- our unit fought the Battle of Widow's Village. The end of that day -- and I think the action reports will probably tell you, if you're looking at them -- we had lost a number of our officers, a number of our senior enlisted. And we took tremendous hits, 2nd and 47th did and some of our companies, because we were first in in these areas. And we -- we fought the Battle of Widow's Village where the VC had gotten into this area, little village set up for the widows of the South Vietnamese soldiers and their children. And they had used that, the VC, as a staging area. They'd gone in and killed the children and the wives, widows, and then prepared for the attack. I think it was almost across the street from MACV headquarters in that area. It was pretty secure area. And so we then drove the VC out of that village, fought all day, took a lot of casualties. And then they assigned us to house-to-house fighting in Saigon because, as you know, they got into the embassy, the VC did, and they were everywhere. And we had a hard time getting rid of some of them. And we were fighting house to house in Saigon for a month after Tet hit. And that's when Tom joined me in I think our second or third -- when they pulled me, I said I was in the field, but we were doing an ambush patrol out in the field for a week of that. They pulled some of us out for a week to go -- because they had gotten word that there was something -- there was a new buildup going on. And they pulled a couple of the platoons out and took us down, back down around our base camp, and that's where I got essentially a little break from the house-to-house fighting, my platoon and two others, I think. Then when my brother Tom joined us down there, Tom went back out in the field with me. We were on that for about five days, and then they brought us back in because they needed more people in Saigon because there were more VC there than they thought. So we finished that operation up, and then we went back down and resumed our ambush patrols and other missions.

Mike Perry:

Does "Task Force Forsyth" mean anything to you?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

Could you describe what --

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, Santa Fe was one. Forsyth was one. A lot of these were blocking actions for the VC. We went -- we also -- I don't know if Forsyth was the one where we went up to Xuan Loc.

Mike Perry:

Bien Hoa?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Bien Hoa. And we were assigned up in those areas, partly because we were -- we were mobile and had the personnel carriers. We could move faster, and we had a little -- a little heavier firepower. And we were -- if I remember on that exercise, we were assigned some tanks. And we had never used tanks. Principally you don't use tanks, didn't use tanks in the delta because even armored personnel carriers would get stuck down there. And we used some tanks on this one. And if I remember, partly this one, too, was a convoy on Highway 1 that was coming back and forth that we needed to open some of those roads back up because the VC, the North Vietnamese, had done big damage up in the north and had cut a lot of Highway 1.

Mike Perry:

It was mid-February. From what I gather, it was mid- February that they assigned your unit to this, in part to open back up Highway 1 to -- as you discussed earlier, to get stuff back into Saigon.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. Because the VC and North Vietnamese had cut a lot of those links and blown those bridges. A lot of the bridges were blown and a lot of the highways disrupted.

Mike Perry:

March 28, 1968. You're wounded. Could you discuss that day?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We were -- we were on an ambush patrol. We knew that VC had been in this area. And we were walking through a very dense jungle, and we were crossing a -- a stream. And someone hit a -- in fact, my brother Tom and I had been walking point. Had been walking point almost all day. This was a company, if I remember. I think it was company strength. And my platoon had had the point position. And Tom and I had been out on point most of the day. And the company commander, I think Captain Davis, rotated my squad back to the second position squad, and they moved up a squad. And about an hour later, we were crossing a stream. One of the point guys hit a tripwire in the stream. There were large Claymore mines that had been placed in the trees. And so when that tripwire was hit, the Claymores exploded and of course took down the guys in front of us. Hit me with shrapnel in the chest. Tom got shrapnel in the arms and I think some in his chest. We -- there wasn't -- if I recall, there was a -- there was a bit of a firefight, but what the VC would do, they'd slow you down and stop you with these major booby traps, and this one was a major one. And then they usually would leave behind some snipers. Occasionally, they'd have a couple of machine gunners that would pick some of you off because in the disarray of the explosion and you're trying to get to your guys, you're vulnerable. And some of that happened. And I don't remember how many people were killed there, but I know there were quite a few wounded. And then we had to -- somewhat of a firefight, and they were able to get the dead lifted out. It was hard to get in with choppers because it was so dense. And then of course you got problems, too, with the security of bringing those choppers down that low. And they were concerned about bringing them in. And so we -- we stayed there up -- we had to, until nightfall, to get the dead out and then the more severely wounded. Tom and I, the captain came to us and said, "Can you guys make it?" And we said, "Yes, we can." And so he said, "Can you get back on point and lead us out?" So Tom and I were wounded, but we got back on point, and I think that was -- I was as afraid that night as I think I've ever been because it was dark. And when it gets dark, it's -- it is dark. And how many more booby traps you're going to walk into that you really can't see. We almost hit another one. My brother Tom saved us. There was another -- about -- we started to move out. Probably it wasn't 20 or 30 yards from where we were as we started to get -- it was starting to get dark, moved out. And Tom spotted a -- a live hand grenade hanging with a little -- a little thin veneer there of wire, which it would have gotten me. And he was able to grab the grenade and defuse it. But we walked them out. We finally got out. I don't know at what time. Maybe 11:00 at night and finally got out, and the choppers came and picked us up.

Mike Perry:

How badly were you wounded?

Senator Charles Hagel:

It wasn't that bad. I mean, they took us to hospitals and -- I still have some shrapnel in my chest. It was peppered pretty good and punctured and a lot of blood, but there was not anything that was life-threatening. And they took us into a field hospital, and we spent, I think, three days there. They dug most of the stuff out of us, out of Tom and out of me, but they left some of it in me because it was around the heart. And so it's interesting when I get chest x-rays. (laughter) They show up.

Mike Perry:

Your company commander and platoon leader, if you had a platoon leader, was in the field with you. In another interview, you expressed some frustration about invisible leadership. What level are you talking there?

Senator Charles Hagel:

The company commanders and the platoon leaders, they were the ones obviously on the ground with you. But I was not much impressed with our -- our battalion leaders, our XOs. I don't -- I didn't ever get a sense that they came down in, enough into the platoon company level to really do what I thought officers should do. And the lieutenants and the captains carried the bulk, as they do in any war, essentially. But it was the sergeants. It was the senior enlisted that carried the weight. I mean really carried the weight. And it was obvious to everybody. And they -- the senior sergeants were the reassuring, calming guys. And in many cases, many cases, these were the guys that didn't fall apart. And some of the officers did. And some of the officers couldn't read maps very well. And I just -- I never had much confidence in -- in a lot of the officer corps. Now, there were exceptions to that. Some exceptional officers that I saw and I served with.

Mike Perry:

Later on, you served with a Colonel Emerson?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Uh-huh.

Mike Perry:

Gun fighter?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Mm-hmm.

Mike Perry:

Did he make an impression? At what level did the people above you make no difference of who they were?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, as a private specialist and then a sergeant, you just didn't ever see those people, and when you did, it was like in base camp or in their -- their six, as they referred to themselves on the radio, in their little bubble choppers up on top. But you -- but they didn't make much of an impact or difference. We, in our case, and you may have picked this up, we had quite a few battalion commanders that went down. We had a Colonel Tower who was fairly new, had walked into the back of his helicopter and was shredded and was killed. Colonel Van Deusen, Frederick Van Deusen, who was Westmoreland's brother-in-law, had just recently come to country and became our battalion commander and was there for a week and shot down on the Saigon River.

Mike Perry:

That was in Ju -- I think July of '68.

Senator Charles Hagel:

That's right. And then Westmoreland had just gone back to the States. He came back because we couldn't find the body. And he came back to take personal charge of that effort. Well, I remember that day very well because Tom and I were both out there, and when the VC -- it was a big fight. And we had some guys killed that day. My brother Tom got his third Purple Heart that day, and I think he got a Bronze Star. I think they put him in for a Silver Star of Valor. But my brother Tom was really pretty exceptional that day. But they found his body days after, I think floating in a sand pan, but what they think happened is when his chopper went down, it went down on his side and he drowned. And he couldn't get out. But -- and then we had another battalion commander who was killed. I think within a three-month period, maybe less than that, we had three battalion commanders killed. (Break in video. Dr. Taylor no longer present.)

Mike Perry:

Sir, when we concluded last session, we ended with your being wounded and going to the hospital and spending about three or four days in the field hospital. What was it like going back to the unit after you'd been wounded during that ambush?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, it was somewhat difficult in one way in that you'd just gone through a pretty difficult experience. But in another way, we were glad to be back. We certainly were glad that we were going back versus the alternative, and the alternative would be injured so badly that we would have been shipped to the hospital in Japan and then home. So we were, I think both of us, looking forward to going back, getting back with our buddies and finishing the job.

Mike Perry:

Did they send most of the soldiers who'd been wounded and could return to duty, did they send them back to their same units or did they sometimes send them to other units?

Senator Charles Hagel:

No. They sent them, in most every case, right back to their same units, if they were only in the hospital for three or four days like my brother and I were.

Mike Perry:

Now, within another month, you were back in the hospital. Could you describe what happened in that second incident where you were wounded?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We were conducting a bridge security exercise, and it was backed -- what we talked about earlier, keeping the highways open at night, running those -- those roads. And bridges were obviously important because that was a main attraction of the saboteurs, to blow up those bridges and disrupt as much of the flow as the VC could. So we were on a -- on a bridge security detail. And it was late into the night, maybe even early in the morning, when we got a call to pack up and get to a village where it was believed that VC were in the village. And we moved very quickly into that village.

My track was the lead track going in, lead track being the armored personnel carrier. We surrounded the village with our APCs and dismounted and then worked in the village. And if I recall, there was not any activity in that village that night as far as any firefights or we didn't find anybody. And we spent, I think, an hour, hour and a half searching the village and found nothing.

Whereupon we mounted back up on the APCs and moved away from the village, the same way we came in. Since my track was the first track going in, my track was the last track going out. And as we were going out, my track, being the last track, we hit a 500-pound mine, which was detonated, had been detonated, through a detonation wire that VC were in the trees and of course chose us because we were the last track.

Fortunately our track did not take the full blast that -- the track didn't come right up on top of the middle of that bomb. And the -- the bomb blew the track up, and it came up the side of the track. And I was on -- sitting on the left-hand side was the leader of the track, and my brother Tom was in the .50 caliber machine gun, working the radio that night, and the driver. And as we engaged the force of the impact of that bomb, of course the track was blown up. [inaudible] fire and track was blown sideways on the road.

The fire came up the side and hit me all the way up and down my left side, burnt my face, arms. My brother Tom was unconscious because of the concussion. And a lot of action going on. We had -- also were experiencing some machine gunfire from the -- from the jungle. And by the time our other tracks could get turned around and come back, what I did was get everybody off the track because I was afraid that it would blow with all the ammunition that we had in those tracks, and it would blow up.

So we were able to throw everybody off the track. Some guys got off on their own. My brother Tom was unconscious, and we took the earphones off of him. He had blood running out of his ears and his nose. And I didn't know if he was dead. So we got him off. I threw him off, and I fell on top of him as we -- as we dove off.

And by this time, the machine gunfire had -- had gotten even fiercer and heavier, but our tracks were coming back to get us. And we had to clear the area first. We had -- I think we had people injured that night, too, and maybe even a couple killed from that. And Tom had had the concussion and been hit with, I think, some shrapnel. I had been hit with shrapnel and burnt my face and up and down. Both eardrums of mine were blown out as well. And until we could secure the area, they couldn't bring any choppers in to get the wounded out.

And so I'll never forget take -- they took Tom and me out. And Tom was burned a little bit, too. I was burned pretty bad. And they put the salve on me over my face and my arms. And they wrapped us up in a blanket and put us on another APC and took us on down the road where we could secure things. And we waited for the choppers to dust us off that night along with the other guys that were hit.

And the burn -- of course there's nothing quite like a burn. The pain. And we didn't have any medics there with us. And we did have some guys, again, I think, that were pretty bad shape, so the morphine, everything was used for them. They did give us some shots, but the pain was pretty bad.

And I remember sitting on that track, another track, waiting for the -- the dustoff to come and medical evacuation, and thinking to myself, you know, if I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, calls upon to settle a dispute. The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it. People just don't understand it unless they've been through it. There's no glory, only suffering in war.

Mike Perry:

Okay. Were you evac'ed again back to the field hospital, or were you turned around pretty quickly?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We were evacuated to the field hospital because we weren't sure how bad our wounds were. I wasn't sure how bad my face was and if I was going to have to have plastic surgery or what was -- none of us knew. We didn't know how bad Tom was hurt. He'd had the concussion. Our eardrums were both blown out. And so they wanted to keep obviously him in for some observation. We were in probably three or four days again. And then I had -- after we got out, I had these bandages that I had on my face for like six weeks. And I had to change those bandages like twice a day because of infection, and I got infection in the side of my face. It was so hot and it was so bad over there, and you're out in the jungle, and you're -- you're rubbing everything in your face. And you've got over 100 degrees, and the humidity is as high. And so in about a week or two weeks, I got infection in the side of my face, and then they had to take me back in and --

Mike Perry:

So you actually went back out on patrol --

Senator Charles Hagel:

We went back out on patrol.

Mike Perry:

-- combat operations right -- right after?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. In both -- both cases.

Mike Perry:

Both cases. Okay. So by the end of April, the division operational reports, which I have copies for you, indicate that the morale of the VC and NVA units in your area had declined significantly and that pacification was working. At the squad leader level, had you seen any difference between what you experienced in January and February and what you were witnessing as far as operational intensity in the April period?

Senator Charles Hagel:

No. Matter of fact, I would say that the operational intensity was more significant in the April/May time frame than it was in January before -- before Tet, because we really did get into a lot of firefights into April, May, and then we -- into July, I remember we were back in some of these areas, and there was a resurgence. And I'm not sure what date that that --

Mike Perry:

They were worried about a resurgence of activity in the May time period.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. That's right.

Mike Perry:

That they were going to go back after Saigon. But from the squad leader level, the activity maintained that intensity that had happened since February from your perspective?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. There wasn't any difference, other than, as I said, maybe more intense.

Mike Perry:

Your brigade commander in his after action report in April indicates tremendous concern about the 11-bravo or the infantryman strength in his units. In fact, the division had allowed soldiers who'd been in the stockade, after 30 days -- before, they used to keep them for their full sentence. They actually said after 30 days, their sentence was commuted so they could get back out in the field. Was the strength at the squad level and the platoon level getting so low that they had to really rotate 11-bravos back in quick?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. We were all terribly understrength at every level. Riflemen, squad, platoon, company. And I recall we were even rotating cooks and clerks into the field to fill some of those gaps. There was another problem, too, and you may be getting there. And that was a tremendous racial divide in 1968. Terrible racial problems. The black soldiers had their own tents, and a lot of the black soldiers openly defied a white officer. That changed considerably for us when after Tet, we had a young black second lieutenant. His name was Jerome Johnson. And he was able to change some of that because he -- he went into those black tents and -- and said no. This is everybody's fight. And that -- that hurt. That racial division really hurt morale. And it hurt the effectiveness of our force. It hurt everything because you were -- you were having both white and black soldiers refuse to go out on patrol, openly defying their officer corps. And our strength was at such a minimum that the officers were letting these guys get away with all kinds of things, which then just broke down, not just the morale, but the discipline. I've never read any reports, of course, from our officer corps during that time, but I can tell you one that lived right through it, it was a big problem.

Mike Perry:

The events such as the assassination of Dr. King, did that raise the concerns or the level of anger --

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

-- within the units?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. It did. Well, you had the Bobby Kennedy and then --

Mike Perry:

In June.

Senator Charles Hagel:

-- Martin Luther King. And there's no question that the King assassination set off a real powder keg that had been simmering under the surface, to some extent. And I credit some of the senior black NCOs for helping do what they could, but you have to remember, in 1968, you were having drafted into the Army guys that had their options. Either go to jail in Texas or New York or New Jersey or whenever, or go into the Army. So you didn't have the model soldier in the Army in 1968. And it showed.

Mike Perry:

When you looked at the platoon, you talked to understrength, [inaudible]. How many of the platoons in the company had lieutenants and how many of them were just commanded by or controlled by a senior noncommissioned officer?

Senator Charles Hagel:

After Tet, because we lost officers, we had senior NCOs really running the company and the platoons. And they ran the platoons throughout. Matter of fact, after Tet, I was acting company sergeant for about two weeks until we could get some senior NCOs in. Our -- one of our captains, I remember him very well. He was right next to me. We were in a cemetery one morning, and a sniper shot him right between the eyes, and he was right next to me. We had a pretty high mortality rate for officers during that time. And then they thinned them out. They would move them -- take some of our officers and move them somewhere else. So it -- it really then became senior NCOs and below them, their companies and their platoons, until we could get fresh infusion of officers in.

Mike Perry:

Was the constant rotation a source of problems in building up trust between people?

Senator Charles Hagel:

The rotation problem was bigger than we could have imagined and didn't quite even understand it when we were going through it. As I look back on it now, it's -- it was the worst thing that could possibly happen. You had guys rotating in and out daily. You would break the continuity of leadership. You'd break the continuity of confidence, of teamwork. You'd get a guy who was leaving in about a month and -- or two months, and he wouldn't pay attention. He -- he would constantly look for ways to not go out in the field because he was down to -- actually it got -- it started about 90 days, and say, "Well, I'm not -- listen, I've come this far. I'm not going to risk it. I'm 90 days away from being out of here." So you'd find guys on sick call that wanted to do berm duty, did everything but go out and subject themselves to what could be their last patrol. And that -- that broke down everything. So it was a very bad policy.

Mike Perry:

You're a squad leader now with -- what? 18 months in the Army?

Senator Charles Hagel:

That's about right.

Mike Perry:

How -- was there a gap between your experiences and some of those senior NCOs that had maybe been about 15 to 20 years and the ability to communicate with -- with this new generation of young soldier?

Senator Charles Hagel:

A huge gap because you had in those days, in the late '60s, you had guys that had come in after -- right after World War II, some right at the tail end of World War II. Certainly many of them had been through Korea. And the 30-year guys, that were getting close to the 30, you know, you back that up, so some of them were World War II vintage. And they couldn't quite understand what was happening. This is '68, remember. There's revolution all over America. Every institution is being challenged. Every educational institution. You've got people doing crazy things they've never done before. You got street problems in the United States over Vietnam. Assassinations. And the older guys, NCOs, that wasn't their world. They didn't understand this kind of new troop style. A guy gets in and doesn't apply himself and understand the significance of what he -- what he's doing. This was a different kind of a world for them. And I remember two sergeants. Both were killed, matter of fact. One guy's name was Smith, and he was shot by a sniper. And he didn't have too long to go either. He was an E7. He'd been in a long time. I think -- not 30 years, but he was getting close to 30 years. Wonderful man. And he was completely bewildered by it all. And he was very struck by it. And he was concerned about the future of the Army, the future of his country. Everything he believed in, his whole life had been about, he saw being questioned now and being turned upside down. And he was -- I'll never forget it. We -- we got into a patch of VC, and we were -- right before we were picking up our arms to go on -- we'd taken a water break. And they opened up on us as we were sitting there. And I was just a couple of guys away from him. He was just coming up out of a tree, and a sniper shot him in the head. But he had I think less than two months to go. But these guys were really dedicated, committed Americans, Army leaders. And it really distressed them to see what was happening to their Army.

Mike Perry:

Well, it was what some of the later Army leaders tried to rectify in the '70s, going into the '80s.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, I might add, the guys who stayed, the young majors and lieutenant colonels like Colin Powell and Norm Schwarzkopf and others, they remade the Army. They saw what went wrong. And I've had many conversations with Colin Powell about this and other generals that went through that were captains and majors and some lieutenant colonels, but mainly captains and majors and lieutenants during the Vietnam War. Two tours, some three. And they saw what was wrong, and they knew what they had to do to rebuild the Army. And thank God that enough of them, like Powell, Schwarzkopf and others, did stay to rebuild and restructure the Army into the kind of Army we have today.

Mike Perry:

Sir, in May, after action reports show that your unit was assigned to Task Force Forsyth with operations in Long An Province, and the rest of your brigade was sent down along the Plain of Reeds. Do you remember those operations at all --

Senator Charles Hagel:

I do.

Mike Perry:

-- in the May time period?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes. We did a lot of traveling on APCs. I can tell you that. Xuan Loc and all up and down the highway there, because I think our main job there was to keep those highways open and -- and do some bridging action. And I think -- I forget what else that they had. We had some ambush patrols, but we spent a lot of time on those tracks.

Mike Perry:

As you moved into the summer months, some of the reports indicate that because of the losses that they took in February and again in May, based upon the -- the intensity, that the VC/NVA started, one, reducing the level. They weren't doing multi-unit operations anymore. They were doing it at guerillas and snipers and a lot of sappers. And they also started moving into the urban areas, into the towns and villages. Do you recall that happening, and could you describe what it was like?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I do recall it because for some reason, the month of July stands out, and we were -- I think the operations reports will bear me out. We were working in some of those -- those urban areas where the VC had gotten in and where they had worked and changed their tactics. I particularly remember it because my brother and I went to the NCO academy. We were acting, you know. When we went over there, we were PFCs, and we got promoted to Spec. 4. And then we were on the old reliable 9th Division NCO academy list. And so the levy came down to take us, and it seems to me, they took us at about the height of that -- of that time, and I think it was July when we were in these -- these cities on the outside of Saigon and some of these bigger towns. And I remember the battalion commander putting a freeze on -- on all of our NCOs -- candidates not going to NCO school. And obviously my brother and I were disappointed by that, but then a couple of weeks later, then they let my brother and I go. And I think a couple other guys went. So we were -- I don't know if that's a two -- was a two-week period or not, but certainly a week, maybe two weeks. So we missed about a week or two weeks of a lot of that house-to-house fighting when we were at the NCO academy.

Mike Perry:

What do they teach you at the NCO academy that you did not already learn by practice?

Senator Charles Hagel:

(laughter) Well, certainly leadership skills and a more sophisticated approach maybe to the responsibilities of a noncommissioned officer. You did a lot of classroom work, a lot of theory, a lot of history, a lot of tradition, understanding more about the armed forces and the structure. They weren't going to teach us much about jungle warfare. Tom and I had each been wounded twice before we even went there, so we had some understanding of that. But I think it was more of a -- of an intellectual preparation. When you consider throwing a kid like my brother Tom, he'd graduated from high school in May, and then in January, he's over in Vietnam getting shot at. I just finished basic and my AIT in August, probably something like that. And a few months later, I am in that same situation, like everybody was. And all of a sudden, you're a sergeant, and you're, like I was, acting platoon sergeant for a couple weeks or maybe even a month. You're thrown into these deals where you just -- you just go by instinct. You hang on and -- and do what you've got to do.

Mike Perry:

Was the informal -- what they call the informal chain of command or the informal leadership structure taking control of the units in a sense? Those natural leaders rose to the positions of responsibility?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Mm-hmm. It was. It was almost like the toughest guy in the outfit. I mean, that's partly what basic and AIT was, in a way. Especially basic training. The ones that the drill sergeants picked out that probably were -- maybe could handle themselves, and I mean physically, and had some brains. You could march -- you could actually march a group. And that's a whole different ballgame, too. When you march a company right into a wall, which I've done before, as a matter of fact. What do I do now? So it was kind of just like you'd pick out the biggest, toughest, smartest guy in the bunch. And you say, "Okay. You're in charge. Now do something with it." And I remember in basic training -- it didn't ever happen in AIT, but I had a couple of guys come at me with shovels and -- guys in my own unit.

Mike Perry:

In AIT or in the --

Senator Charles Hagel:

In basic.

Mike Perry:

Basic.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Basic training. Yeah. I had some fights in Vietnam, matter of fact. My brother Tom and I both did. I mean fistfights. I remember walking into a -- a tent one afternoon. We had been in for two-day standdown, and I -- this great big guy -- I never -- I never forget his name. His name was Forester. And big guy from New Jersey. And he was just whaling on this guy -- this kid from New York who was always scared. And I grabbed him and turned him around and threw him on the cot. And I said, "Stop it." And I said, "Why don't you pick on somebody your own size?" And he says, "How about you?" And I said, "Well, you can try me." I mean, we -- we busted through the screen doors, and it was -- it was pretty rugged. We -- I probably had about six of those. My brother did, too. And you know, people are upset. They're frustrated. They swing wildly at anything. They -- and the guys get a snootful of vodka at night when they're in there. Drugs were becoming a big problem.

Mike Perry:

By the summer of '68?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes, they were. Big problem.

Mike Perry:

Marijuana or harder?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Mostly marijuana. When I left in December of '68, I didn't -- I'd not seen much hard drug activity, but I'd heard from guys who got out later, it started to become a problem. It was mainly marijuana.

Mike Perry:

What did -- you talk about fights. What type of discipline system? What did the company commander do? What did the first sergeant do?

Senator Charles Hagel:

They kind of let it play out. Just get it out of your system. Kind of like the Old West.

Mike Perry:

Okay.

Senator Charles Hagel:

If someone was going to get seriously hurt -- now, there are situations where it had happened to me; it happened to my brother -- when guys would pick up loaded M16s and loaded .45s and start shooting at somebody's foot or shooting over the top -- in the -- in the tents, in base camp, at night after drinking a quart of vodka. I mean, it was a little bit like the Wild West. And that's when they'd step in, of course, and have to because somebody would get shot. Now, some guys did get shot. I mean, I saw some of that happen. I saw a grenade -- I didn't see the grenade go off. It happened in a -- a tent next to me one night.

Mike Perry:

A fragging?

Senator Charles Hagel:

A fragging. Yeah. Happened more than once in our unit. And so that was the kind of stuff that was going on, but I think just letting the guy have a fisticuff, go out and just get it out of your system. They didn't ever really -- if it was obvious they had to go break it up, they had to break it up, but they didn't -- they didn't do anything unless they thought it was going to get out of hand.

Mike Perry:

As the summer goes on, they start talking about piling-on tactics within your brigade, that someone would go out there almost like a piece of -- not a bait; that's the wrong term, but would go forward, would make contact. And then they would bring all the assets of the battalion on. Do you remember that being --

Senator Charles Hagel:

I remember it very well. Very well. I was part of that bait many times. I remember especially one night. There were four of us. And one of the problems you had, too, at this point in time of '68 where we are in this conversation, is you had guys getting all drunked up or drugged up and then going out on patrol leaving at, you know, 10 or 11 at night when it's good and dark and so you could slip out. And these guys shouldn't have been going out. And they -- they were worthless to you. They were a hindrance. They were dangerous to you because they didn't know what they were doing. They'd be drunk. And sometimes you wouldn't know they were drunk or all drugged up. And they'd start screaming in the jungle at night, and they'd wake up or -- they wouldn't pull guard duty and -- But one night, I remember we were in a rubber plantation. And it was one of these -- these bait patrols. And we knew there was significant VC strength in the area, and we were to go out and see if we could find them or hear them and bait it up. And about 2:00 in the morning, I was -- I was -- had the guard. There were four of us. And I had the guard duty that -- that hour. And I heard this clanking in the distant future. Well, some of that sometimes was like a cowbell on a cow. I mean, you never knew because it was so dark, you couldn't -- you couldn't truly see your hand in front of your face in some of this. Because the jungle was so thick or the plantations were so thick. And it started getting closer and louder, and then more clank, more clank. What then it seemed to me was happening here, we probably had some force moving here. It sounded to me like they had some old canons or some old guns that they had on wheels. And I wasn't sure, and I thought, well, and I listened. I didn't wake anybody because I knew as soon as I'd wake somebody up and coming up out of a sleep and say what I think might be out there -- I didn't want them to pull -- pull off a round or do something that would give away our position. So I waited almost when they were very close. And I don't know -- again, I think it was -- I don't know what size force, but there was something. And I woke these guys up, and I told each one of them not to -- not to say a word, to leave -- we had Claymores set up out in front of us to protect us. And we crawled out of there on our bellies as -- as -- I don't know how close we came, but you could almost smell them at this point. And they may have gone right over the top of us. Well, we left everything right there. We took our weapons, but we left the radio, because we just -- that was it. And we left the Claymores. We left the ponchos. And we took our rifles and got out to a clearing, and we stayed there. Stayed very quiet. And the other problem was when you did these kinds of patrols is -- is if people weren't paying attention, you would be mistaken for the enemy out there on a ridge line, and they'd -- they'd set off Claymores or start firing M60s or M50s at you. And if you start screaming to say, "Don't shoot," you don't know what was behind you either. But I saw guys get shot up by our own people on deals like this. But in any event, that one night, I will never forget. My -- my knee was -- was jumping and shaking like I've never ever in my life shook because I think we were that close. The next morning as soon as daybreak, then we -- we stayed out in there, away, because I didn't want to take my guys in. We didn't have a radio. You see, that was the other problem. So I said just everybody stay quiet and get down. So we waited for the sun to come up. And then we were able to make some contact. We immediately went back to where we were, according to where I thought the coordinates -- knew the coordinates were where I thought we'd gone. Everything was gone. So somebody had been there. It wasn't cowbells.

Mike Perry:

No.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Everything was gone.

Mike Perry:

Everything was gone. Okay. You talked jungle. Could you really define what you mean, because people have different visions of what a jungle is. Could you really talk about the physical environment that you lived in?

Senator Charles Hagel:

The jungle was so thick that you -- you could -- you couldn't stand almost like this. And you would always want to walk off the trails for obvious reasons. So the point guys -- which I mentioned earlier my brother and I walked point most of the time. One of us would have to walk, the front point, with a machete chopping that jungle because you want to break traces that had never been broken before, just simply to assure that there's not a grenade or booby trap there. It would wrap around you. The bamboo would just rip you. The vines that would come around your neck and your legs and -- it was a constant, constant fight.

Mike Perry:

How tall were the trees?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Oh, the trees were -- you couldn't see the sun.

Mike Perry:

Okay.

Senator Charles Hagel:

I mean, it was a canopy that just dropped over. It was like you were inside all the time. Then you would get into some of this elephant grass where it would be way over your head. You couldn't see anything. There were light moments, too, when you'd find big snakes that come out of nowhere, and some of these guys would be up front, and those snakes would come after them. And they'd scream and run like hell and go to the back and --

Mike Perry:

No upset water buffalo?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We had some water buffalo. I mean, when you're doing this, when you're out there, you find it all. The snakes, the water buffalo coming at you and the whole thing. Elephants, by the way. We even caught some elephants; not caught them, but -- we were never up in the highland area where they -- they mainly were, but we were on the fringes of some of that plateau, and we had a couple of elephants charge us.

Mike Perry:

You're talking wild?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Wild elephants.

Mike Perry:

Wild elephants. No tigers, though, huh?

Senator Charles Hagel:

No. I did see a tiger. I did see a tiger. He never, never came at us, I don't think.

Mike Perry:

Sir, in the latter part, when I looked at the reports in the September/October time period, they indicated that your battalion was assigned to assist the Royal Thai Army. Do you -- did that --

Senator Charles Hagel:

I remember it very well. Very well.

Mike Perry:

Could you discuss the -- one, that experience of what it was like to work with a -- a foreign -- foreign army?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I was very excited about it. I thought it was a tremendous thing. I liked the Thais. They were tremendous soldiers. They were fearless. Well-trained. Well- prepared. They knew the jungle. They knew the area very well. And I liked it. I thought -- we worked with the Koreans to some extent, too, but mainly the Thais. And I found them to be terrific to work with.

Mike Perry:

Could you discuss the discipline? There's always rumors about the intense discipline that they run.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Oh, they're a crack outfit. They had purple -- maroon -- not purple. Maroon berets and green berets. The tankers, I think, had green berets. And they each gave me one with the beautiful ornament, the king's ornament, on it, that gold ornament. And I still have those berets, matter of fact. I have one in my office that I was given. Then when I was in Singapore, Senator Jack Reed and I had led the Congressional delegation over to Singapore in May of 2002 for the first Asian Defense Ministers Conference. 22 Asian defense ministers were there. And the Thai defense minister presented me with another beret because he remembered me giving a speech somewhere when I was in Bangkok about working with the Thais. But they were tremendous soldiers. Well-trained, disciplined. Understood the objective. Tough soldiers. Very friendly, very pro-American. Very good to work with.

Mike Perry:

What was your unit doing with them?

Senator Charles Hagel:

They were -- they had their APCs as well. And we were doing some joint blocking action and then working the roads, if I recall, and doing some sweeps. I think they were doing sweeps at that point. They would -- the blocking sweeps. And then they would bring them in from the top, and then we would block, and then they'd sweep down to flush them out. We were working on some of those projects with them.

Mike Perry:

Did you work with any other foreign armies?

Senator Charles Hagel:

The Koreans, we did a little bit. And they were very good. The Australians, a little bit.

Mike Perry:

I saw that there was an organization, I think, called Free -- Free -- Free Armies, which was a separate organization somewhere within your brigade's operation.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Mm-hmm. Yes.

Mike Perry:

So October. You're talking about the concern that people get as they get closer to the end of their tour. Did you start getting that same apprehension as you --

Senator Charles Hagel:

No. I was just ready to go home. We -- my brother Tom and I, after we -- he'd been wounded a third time.

Mike Perry:

Right.

Senator Charles Hagel:

And we were -- I think -- you get into October, if I recall. We were starting to get a little attention from the commanders. Two brothers, both wounded twice, one a third time. They're getting closer to their date of departure and maybe we should pull them back a little bit. So they pulled Tom and me out of the field for a little bit there and gave us -- gave us some headquarters jobs in the battalion down in Binh Phouc, did different things. And then they'd rotate us back into the lineup. And I think that was -- that was probably, as I said, a result of these guys being a little nervous. But I knew in October that I was getting close to go home, and I was very pleased about that, except this problem. I then thought for the first time I will leave, but I will leave my brother here. And I was bothered by that. In fact, I even went in to see if I could extend my -- my time because you could extend your time in those days, if you came back to the United States and you had served a minimum of -- I think then -- maybe it was 8 or 10 months in-country in Vietnam and you had less than 150 days to go, they would just automatically separate you. So you could extend your time to get under the 150 days. My brother Tom actually did that. I was well within my time, so I could leave on December 4, which was my one-year anniversary and still be separated, but I asked about staying longer, maybe going home when Tom did. And I didn't tell Tom, and he heard about it through a sergeant. And Tom was very, very upset with me about that. And he said, "No." He said, "That's the wrong thing to do. Our mother is expecting you home. You need to do that. I'll be fine." And so he convinced me not to do that. So I went ahead and took my time December 4. I got back. Of course, it was separated. But he extended for -- I think he extended for a month in order to make that 150-day.

Mike Perry:

That sort of ends your experiences fighting, but was there anything else you'd like to add about your combat experience while you were -- while serving over there?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, you know, people who have never been in combat have no way of understanding what it is. They see movies. They see different dynamics. They read. They talk with people who have been through it. And I think there's always an exaggerated sense of it to a certain extent that, you know, you're fighting every day, and there's this life-and-death situation every day. And it isn't that way. Yes, you -- I don't know how many firefights I was in. I don't know how much combat -- I mean, the actual day-to-day people shooting at you and you shoot at them and the problems, I've never tried to calculate it. I had my share. And 1968, as you know, was the worst year we ever had over there, but a lot of it is pretty boring, too. A lot of it is pretty monotonous. A lot of it is going through the same thing day after day. And maybe you go for a week and not have anything. Maybe you go for two weeks and just not have anything. Of course, that's dangerous, too, because you get sloppy and you -- you don't pay attention. But that's the only thing I would add about -- you asked the question about the combat experience. There's a lot of downtime in the sense of a lot of boring time. Now, we weren't sitting around, munching pretzels and drinking beer. We were out in the field and sweating and probably wishing sometimes you were in combat and doing the patrol work and the breaking jungle for 16 hours a day with a machete and always thinking that you might be in the gun sights of a sniper up in a tree or always knowing that there was a grenade hanging on that tree or always knowing you could be walking right into an ambush, which we did. And the mental pressure that is on people who are out in those situations, the intensity of that pressure, does make -- does make an individual break. It makes him do funny things. It -- and I don't think people quite understand that. It carries forward, too. You know, we've gone through this 30 years and 20 years and 10 years of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Really is there such a thing? And do guys wake up in the middle of the night? I remember my father, when I was young -- he was in World War II overseas for almost three years. I remember him waking up in the middle of the night screaming. No. It does happen. And it happens not just because of necessarily the blood and gore that you see in combat. It's the -- it's the pressure of the mental process that -- that makes you that way.

Mike Perry:

You have to constantly focus.

Senator Charles Hagel:

You have to constantly focus. Last point I'd make. One of the things that the Army did -- wasn't the Army's fault; nobody knew -- that they shouldn't have done is separate all these guys when they'd come back. Just (snaps fingers) like that. When you -- you -- you would hit the -- you would come back in. You'd go to Oakland.

Mike Perry:

That was my next question, was your out-processing.

Senator Charles Hagel:

The out-processing was terrible. Now, for me, wanting to just get the hell out, at that moment, for me, it was -- it was the greatest thing that could happen because the last thing I wanted was to hear a bunch of majors or sergeant majors tell me about anything. But -- but when you think of -- of 72 hours prior to the time you let somebody out on that street in San Francisco or wherever they're going to go to with a full wallet, new Class As. "Thank you for your service, young man. Now go have a good life." Considering what they had just been through, with no transition, no kind of bringing it down a little bit, no adjustment, no -- I mean, you had your quick little physical. You had your little -- you had the chaplain talk to you. You had a couple of psychiatrists talk to you, and that was all about an hour, the whole thing. "And now, you be a good boy, and don't do anything crazy. Don't get too drunk on the way home. And don't spend all your money. Your mom's waiting for you. Or your wife's waiting for you. Be careful. We appreciate your service." I mean, that was it.

Mike Perry:

How long from the time you were on the streets in the United States was it that you had left your unit?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, sometimes it was 72 hours. Sometimes it was 72 hours. Three days. That just wasn't a good way to do it because you had -- in those days in '68, you had so many of these draftees in there who many of them weren't suited to be there for a lot of reasons. And they needed some counseling out of this. Now, some guys were going to be headed for trouble, no matter what. Some guys went in with trouble and they came out with trouble. And some guys blame it on Vietnam, and maybe Vietnam made it worse for some guys. In some cases, it wouldn't have mattered if they'd gone to Vietnam or not. These are some pretty troubled guys. And -- but -- but to almost just cut them loose with 72 hours notice, say, boom, you're on your own, and not bringing them down a little bit, just a little at a time, a little at a time, was a -- was a -- is a bad, bad thing to do. And I've had many veterans -- when I was at the Veterans Administration, when I was deputy administrator of the VA in the first Reagan administration, had many of these guys say the same thing to me that I'm saying to you. "If I would have had maybe a week or 10 days just to think through and get myself together a little bit," but what happened was you go hit a bar or you got that full wallet. You meet some girls. You go do something stupid. You -- In some cases, these kids didn't get home back to their mother or their wives for a month after they were separated, after they were broken -- broken down somewhere and no money and --

Mike Perry:

Spent all their -- their last pay?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yeah. And they did it on a basis, "Well, I deserve it. I mean, what I've been through and got back alive. I paid my -- my debt. That's good enough."

Mike Perry:

Where did you out-process?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I think it was Oakland and Travis. That's where we went, we left from, and I think they brought us back in.

Mike Perry:

How did the public receive you when you walk out that gate and you were no longer really in the Army; you were a civilian again?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, I didn't ever experience any -- any difficult time. I suppose I got out about at the right time in December of '68. I know as you move forward a couple years down the road, the intensity of the antiwar movement was really rough. And then I went back to the Midwest, which was a different world. As I said earlier in our interview, my world was growing up in little towns where American Legion clubs and VFWs were the social center. And so I was -- I was brought back into the bosom of -- of veterans and service to your country. And you can go to Omaha. That's a little -- a little different maybe. And there were -- there were antiwar protestors there, but not what you saw on the East Coast or West Coast.

Mike Perry:

How did the -- the old vets, Korea and World War II, accept you when you -- when you came back into town?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Oh, completely accepting and proud and -- and encouraging. Very gracious and -- I had great experiences with the -- with the veterans of Korea, World War II, and very, very encouraging. Very helpful.

Mike Perry:

We talked about a little bit before. You talked about the constant rotation. 4,000 enlisted a quarter would process through the 9th Infantry Division, about 250 officers. Did you see generations, as you -- in even that short period of time, did you see different attitudes over that period between -- you know, when you showed up, there were guys who had been there since '67. You're an old-timer. Did you see that, like, quarterly, a different change in the attitudes of the soldiers coming in?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I did. I -- I saw it also, the attitude reflected by -- the attitude of America. As America was becoming steadily more questioning of our effort in Vietnam. And then, as you know, really happened after Tet, when in fact the military evaluations and measurements was that the VC suffered a terrible loss.

Mike Perry:

Right.

Senator Charles Hagel:

But that wasn't the way it was seen here in the United States for most cases as the news media broadcasted it and perceived it and framed it. And that accelerated the questioning of our involvement and how we were fighting it. You know, I was thinking the other day, it's astounding when you think of how many young Americans we were shipping back in body bags a week. In the hundreds, a week. You think about today. I mean, this country would not put up with something like that. I mean, it would just (snaps fingers). It would be that fast. And not that we liked it, but we accepted it. But what was happening, as you know, the undermining of that acceptance and the questioning and the polarization. And I could see that reflected in the attitudes of every time there was another -- every two months.

Mike Perry:

And you were in-country at the time.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

I was probably 16. And once a week on the news, you'd have Walter Cronkite or one of the major networks put up the number killed, the number of wounded as a -- as a news item during that period that you were there. And yes. You could see the significant number of casualties that we were suffering. In an interview back when you did that Nebraska statewide interview --

Senator Charles Hagel:

Oh, the ATV. Yes. Uh-huh.

Mike Perry:

ATV. You expressed some frustration in some of your leaders, and we talked a little bit about this last time. At what level did the leadership make no difference to you?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, I never really saw or had any meaningful contact with anybody above our company commander. And that was normally a captain or a first lieutenant who would be promoted shortly to captain. Much beyond that, we just didn't have any -- any -- my -- my group of soldiers didn't have any relationship with -- at all. The officers, our company commander, our platoon leaders, were very close to their men. They would be in our -- the enlisted men's hooches. When we were having a downtime, they'd sit there and drink beer with us. They'd sit there and play cards with us. I mean, that was our relationship, and it was limited to that.

Mike Perry:

So really there were very few senior leaders when we talk, I'd say colonel level or higher, that really made much of an impression on you while you were in Vietnam?

Senator Charles Hagel:

That's right.

Mike Perry:

While you were over there, one of your sister brigades in the division, the second brigade, developed the Riverine Force, yet your brigade was common infantrymen, still moving around in APCs. Did you feel that your brigade perhaps was not necessarily getting the same amount of attention that some of the other units were getting?

Senator Charles Hagel:

No. We didn't even think about that. Your -- your scope of vision and your -- your lens, as you know, is very limited when you're in 11-bravo and you're a PFC or a Spec. 4 or an acting E5. You're not thinking too much beyond what's right there in front of you. And you're not thinking too much about the other units or brigades or what they're doing. I mean, you were fully consumed with what you're doing and your responsibilities.

Mike Perry:

You discussed your combat operations. You mentioned a little bit about base camp, but what was the -- how often did you get back to base camp and what was your routine while you were in base camp?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Depending on what the mission was, if it was on an APC and blocking actions and bridge security or rubber plantation security, running the roads at night, we'd stay out maybe for two weeks at a time. Obviously if you're on foot patrols and you're busting the jungle, we're out maybe a week, sometimes three days. It just depended on the mission. Obviously the longer you were out, the more downtime you get back -- you get, but I don't ever remember us being back in base camp for more than maybe two nights and three days. I mean, it was -- you'd come back and get your equipment cleaned up, and you rest up a little bit. And you always were doing something because you had to take the perimeter guard, the berm guard, and so you had -- it wasn't going back and just laying around for three days. I mean, you were doing something the whole time. It's just you weren't out breaking jungle.

Mike Perry:

Okay. They did have a program to get people back sometimes to get some rest and relaxation, R and R.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

And it was a number that was tracked very closely, and it normally -- what the quota was was what actually occurred. Did you get chance to go on R and R?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yes.

Mike Perry:

Where did you go?

Senator Charles Hagel:

My brother Tom and I went to Hawaii. A matter of fact, in July. And when -- when you mentioned July, there was some rather intense fighting that was going on when Tom and I were on that manifest. I mean, once you got on the manifest, you were there --

Mike Perry:

Right. You were there.

Senator Charles Hagel:

So we went to Hawaii to see my mother and my brothers and more aunts than I ever knew I had. Of course the aunts all had to come cheer the boys on. And they'd all told their husbands that America would not win the war unless they went to Hawaii and made sure that Chuck and Tom had the kind of support that they needed.

Mike Perry:

You stayed at Fort DeRussy, or did you stay downtown, or did you --

Senator Charles Hagel:

We stayed at a hotel which is no longer there. I think it's now where one of the Hilton Hotels is on Waikiki. It was a hotel called the Hale Kalani. And it was a wonderful little place, and there were little cabins is what they had. It's -- but I think where the Hilton is now, one of the Hiltons is where that is. I was just back through there not too long ago, and I looked it up. And that's what -- I think is where it was. But we were processed into DeRussy, but we didn't -- we didn't stay there.

Mike Perry:

Did -- how much did you look forward to this and did your peers look forward to this opportunity of getting back?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Oh, it is the one thing that kept you going. You thought about that. You counted that down. And then once the manifest came down, once you were locked in with some dates, then you could shoot for, if I can just hang on to -- whatever that -- I forget the dates in July we took R and R, but it was a big deal. And then you were supposed to be eligible for one out- of-country R and R and one in-country R and R. And that usually -- I think the only place -- that was Bang Tao down on the South China beach and sea. But we never got -- we didn't ever get an in-country R and R. Both times we were scheduled to go, we had big operations and got hit bad, and we took big casualties. And so they just cancelled all the in-country R and Rs.

Mike Perry:

Did you have a Kit Carson or Tiger Scout assigned?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Tiger Scout.

Mike Perry:

Were you confident in their -- both their abilities and their loyalty?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Generally, I was. I -- I never saw anything that would change my -- my mind there. I mean, you knew where they came from, and you were mindful of that. I mean, I'm not sure you'd feel comfortable about one of them marrying your sister or -- or having -- having him in for a week for Christmastime, but you were mindful of what could happen, and you knew stories that did happen.

Mike Perry:

What did they do for you?

Senator Charles Hagel:

They were essentially our bridge between the local villagers and the people in the sense that -- not that they were their buddies, but they spoke the language, they knew the terrain. They were adept and knowledgable in what was going on out there. They were helpful in -- I think, in keeping us out of some ambushes, which I think in fact they did do on a number of occasions. So I never saw any problem with them, and we never had any -- I didn't ever have any bad experiences with them. I thought they were -- they were very brave. They fought well. Everything I ever experienced was -- was positive about the Tiger Scouts.

Mike Perry:

How -- how long did you -- did you always have one or did you have periods when you didn't have -- have one affiliated?

Senator Charles Hagel:

We had periods when we didn't have them. They had a pretty significant casualty rate; at least with us they did. Because they were -- they were tough, and they -- they put their lives on the line. They walked point a lot. They were out with us a lot.

Mike Perry:

You said your world as a sergeant was pretty much focused at what was going on in your particular unit. But were you aware of other major operations such as the -- the lifting of the siege of Khe Sanh, or was that stuff that just bypassed you?

Senator Charles Hagel:

No. We -- we were aware of most of the things going on because Stars and Stripes newspaper, we got. American Armed Forces television and radio. When we were in, we could see it in an enlisted men's club, TV. News or certainly on the radio. We had access to the radio all the time. And then Stars and Stripes. And I don't know if there were really any other newspapers that we ever looked at or saw. But we were not blacked out from what was going on in Vietnam or the rest of the world. I remember, by the way, just -- we had a first sergeant by the name of Garcia from Texas. He was a tough guy. Very glib, smart guy. And he was not a particularly favorite of mine or I don't think anybody's. But I remember we started talking about politics one night. And this was -- this was early spring 1968. And I said, "I think Richard Nixon is going to get the Republican nomination for President, and I think he'll be elected." And Garcia bet me, bet me a case of Budweiser. He said, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I mean, Nixon is washed up. He's a has-been." And that then started a whole pool. And I remember the whole tent -- those who were betting on Nixon, those who were betting on Romney and Scranton and all of them. Of course, you know, I won. And I'll never forget First Sergeant Garcia coming into my tent with a warm case of Budweiser beer after the elections in November of 1968.

Mike Perry:

How much did the news from the home front affect what was going on?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Oh, I don't think it affected a lot. Certainly the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King affected us, something like that. Those were monumental events. But the rest of us, we -- you know, we stayed close to sports and wanted to know a little something about baseball, football, World Series, college football. But beyond that, it wasn't -- it wasn't much more than just an interest and wanting to know about it.

Mike Perry:

Caught most of my other questions concerning drug use and racial tensions in some of your earlier comments, but if you look at your -- you went home, and in one of the articles that I read that mentioned your need to go to that first Veterans Day or Memorial Day ceremony when you were a young reporter out of -- what drew you to that?

Senator Charles Hagel:

I think anyone who's ever served their country in uniform and has experienced what no one else ever experiences unless you were in uniform; and even more poignantly, out of this country in uniform; and even more poignantly than that, in a war, always is and will be with you, part -- a huge part of you that can never be taken away or decoupled from the whole person that you are. And then your recognition of all the other people who served and what they went through. Just to be near somebody and know that he knows that you know that he knows and both ways -- don't even have to say a word. I think that's one of the reasons the Vietnam Veteran Memorial is so powerful. You don't need to say a word. And that drove me very much that day. And I remember that, covering that Veterans Day. And I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be -- be there. I wanted to -- I just wanted to be next to those other veterans and those other people who had -- who had served. And I didn't expect any recognition. I didn't expect a favor. I just wanted to be part of a group of people who I thought had done something rather special. It didn't mean we were better or smarter, but we'd done -- done something that most people will never do.

Mike Perry:

Did your experience shape you or did it just reinforce certain value systems you already had?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Oh, I think it did both. I was very fortunate growing up that I had a mother and father and family around me that early on, shaped values and standards and expectations of service, work ethic, believing in things. And that was there, and certainly the time I was in the service in Vietnam further refined that and defined that and shaped me. So I think both.

Mike Perry:

What have you carried forward? What have you used that experience to implement in your own -- in your own life?

Senator Charles Hagel:

There's not a day goes by that you don't pull back on at least some little thing -- life's not about big things every day -- and you don't recall in some way an experience you had in the service, in Vietnam, a tolerance, an understanding, reaching beyond, trying to understand more than the obvious underneath. And probably most fundamental for me as a United States senator, when we talk of going to war again Iraq or against anyone, we need to think it through carefully, not just for the political and the geopolitical and the diplomatic and the economic consequences -- and those are important. But at least for me, this old infantry sergeant thinks about when I was in Vietnam in 1968, United States senators making decisions that affected my life and a lot of people who lost their lives, that they didn't have -- I didn't have anything to say about. Someone needs to represent that perspective in our government as well. The people in Washington make the policy, but it's the little guys who come back in the body bags. (Break in video.)

Senator Charles Hagel:

And that dimension should never be discarded or not thought through before we commit a nation to war and the sure death of our men and women. There are things worth fighting for. There are things worth dying for. But we should think it through as carefully as we can and exhaust all the options. And then if we must go to war, we must go to war.

Mike Perry:

Do you find with the decreasing number of members of the Senate and the House who've served in the military and the fewer number now who are combat veterans, that your peers look to you for that type of advice on whether we should go to combat?

Senator Charles Hagel:

Maybe quietly, they do. We don't have, as you suggest, many in the Senate. There are four of us Vietnam veterans in the Senate. It's kind of an unspoken --

Mike Perry:

Okay.

Senator Charles Hagel:

-- thing. Sometimes it is spoken. Sometimes it is more overt. Sometimes colleagues will reach out and say, "What do you think?" But it's more of a -- like much of this institution, colleague to colleague is sometimes more unspoken than spoken.

Mike Perry:

Sir, I don't have much more to ask formally, but is there something you would like to add at this conclusion?

Senator Charles Hagel:

You know, I don't know what I'd add. I think you've really covered all the -- the perspectives. I mean, we could go at this for hours, I know. But I think the measurable, big pieces, you've covered.

Mike Perry:

Okay. Well, this is really to document your service history. And I thank you for the opportunity. It's been absolutely a pleasure. And for the opportunity for myself of diving into the details.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Well, thank you very much for -- for doing this. And I'm grateful. And I especially appreciate those, too. In fact, I'm going back to Nebraska tonight. I'll take those on the plane with me and --

Mike Perry:

Okay.

Senator Charles Hagel:

-- and go through them. So thank you.

Mike Perry:

Well, thank you very much.

Senator Charles Hagel:

Yeah. Thank you. (Conclusion of interview.)

 
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  October 26, 2011
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