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.”
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.
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.
(Related: Who 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.
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.