Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel waits for the arrival of Minister of Defense of the Netherlands Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, on October 7, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel waits for the arrival of Minister of Defense of the Netherlands Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, on October 7, 2014. DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett

Veterans and Troops Lament Losing Advocate in Hagel

Troops and veterans say they lost an advocate and sympathetic ear in Hagel. By Gordon Lubold

Chuck Hagel arrived in the Pentagon as a soldier’s defense secretary, a former Army sergeant and Vietnam vet with the shrapnel still in his chest to prove it. And even if Hagel had problems articulating the White House’s elusive strategic goals on a world stage, he was most comfortable talking to the troops for whom he worked quietly to advocate. And now after his resignation Monday, veterans groups and military service organizations said they worry his departure could leave some of their issues in limbo.

Amid the speculation that Hagel fell down on the job, lost confidence of the White House and never got traction inside President Obama’s inner circle, forcing his resignation Monday, comes praise from those who worked closely with him on the more mundane, less headline-grabbing issues for the military and veterans communities.

Hagel aides point to the work Hagel did during his 21-month tenure building partnerships with Israel and Egypt and helping to keep the bureaucratic focus on the so-called pivot to Asia. But in many ways he was hired to do another job: to manage a Defense Department whose massive budget was shrinking, and to oversee a military ending 13 years of war.

As world crises dominated headlines, Hagel confronted a wave of departmental management issues, like strengthening the Pentagon’s nuclear “enterprise,” modernizing the massive health record system and addressing both the ethics and sexual assault crisis that ripped across the military. At the same time, Hagel had to cut a Pentagon budget that meant some of the generous benefits for military personnel and their families had to be cut as well. Hagel had to socialize the loss of those benefits, from smaller housing allowances to a reduced commissary program to lowered base pay with many veterans groups. Military advocates said he took their issues seriously, meeting with dozens of veterans service groups and military service organizations quarterly. And every month, he hosted a lunch in his office for enlisted military personnel in which one of his favorite foods, Runzas, the bread pocket filled with beef or pork and a traditional favorite in his native Nebraska, were brought in.

“Secretary Hagel was very unique in how he reached out to military people and associations,” said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association outside Washington. She, like others, said Hagel didn’t follow a script during the quarterly meetings he had with such groups, but sat down for a meaningful discussion and listened to their issues. Members of the groups didn’t like everything Hagel was telling them. But they felt that they’d been heard.

“He couldn’t do much about it, but at least he listened and asked questions about the impact [policy proposals] would have on service members and their families.”

(RelatedA Look Back at Chuck Hagel’s Tenure as Defense Secretary)

Many of the issues with which a defense secretary must contend can be esoteric, like a pet issue for Raezer’s group: consistent access to U.S. military bases for non-profit organizations. Some bases allow groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars to access U.S. military bases to provide services to military personnel; others do not. Hagel has directed that bases eliminate the inconsistencies to help veterans get services they need. But it’s unclear how a new defense secretary may view the same issue. “So what’s going to happen now?” she asked, referring to base access.

Secretary Hagel was very unique in how he reached out to military people and associations.
Joyce Raezer,
executive director of the National Military Family Association

Hagel’s successor will have a full plate at the Pentagon, but it’s not clear military issues per se will drive the agenda. Robert Gates, who was hired in late 2006 to help correct the strategy in the Iraq war, used that agenda to force changes across the Defense Department when it came to the way weaponry was designed and purchased, and made other reforms to make the department more responsive to the needs of the force. Similarly, the new secretary will be charged with asserting policy issues overseas. But what’s not yet clear is if Hagel’s successor will have the time or inclination to make changes that will resonate particularly with the military’s rank-and-file.

But those issues may be hard to ignore. Congress has commissioned a review of military compensation that is due to be complete early next year. And the ongoing budget battles and sequester will mean the next secretary will be forced to contend with those internal management issues.

Ash Carter, the former deputy secretary of defense, is a likely candidate to replace Hagel since Michèle Flournoy, the Pentagon’s former policy chief, pulled her name out of the running late Tuesday. Carter, whose grip on the Pentagon bureaucracy is thought to be tight, could be seen as knowing how to handle management issues pertaining to the force.

(RelatedWho Will Be the Next Secretary of Defense?)

Still, veterans groups say they’ll miss Hagel.

“That will be a loss to the veterans’ community, not having Secretary Hagel in his role as secretary of defense,” said Dick Newton, a retired Air Force three-star who served as vice chief of staff of the Air Force until 2012.

“He was a positive influence, not only on the veterans themselves but also on the bureaucracy, helping it to be less rigid in supporting veterans and their families.”

Hagel brought an ear to the table on these and other matters, and even if advocacy groups didn’t always agree with Hagel or the White House, they said they knew he was trying to do the best he could do with what he had. When it came to explaining sequester, the forced spending cuts on the Pentagon that would affect military benefits, it fell to Hagel to explain it.

“It was never personal with Secretary Hagel because it was obvious that he was doing the best he could do with the deck he was handed,” said Norb Ryan, who heads the Military Officers Association of America.

He was a positive influence, not only on the veterans themselves but also on the bureaucracy.
Dick Newton,
former Air Force vice chief of staff

Hagel aides point to a myriad of other Defense Department initiatives Hagel tackled during his tenure, including addressing POW/MIA accounting procedures after media reports showed that that effort of finding and returning home remains of troops who are missing in action and which goes to the heart of military ethos, was mismanaged and wasteful. The secretary also directed a review of the military justice system, and took a hand in acquisition reform by launching an initiative known as “Better Buying Power 3.0.”

“While his legacy may be mixed in foreign policy, Secretary Hagel succeeded in defense policy,” wrote Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in a piece published Tuesday for the National Interest. “And he did so at a time when there was absolutely no positive news coming out of the Pentagon. He also had the buy-in of the force, a major accomplishment that should not be easily overlooked when many of those service members are in harm’s way every day in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria.”

In some cases, Hagel took initiatives on things that wouldn’t come to fruition for some time. Before Hagel arrived at the Pentagon in February 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ignited a firestorm by directing that a special award be created for drone operators. Hagel ordered the awards that were already in production for the new award to be destroyed and then told his staff to begin a review of military awards and decorations. But to some in the military for whom the issue is top of mind, Hagel kicked the can too far down the road: giving the review more than a year before it had to meet any  deadline.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.