As he exits, Hagel recalls his roots, Vietnam combat.
Byline: Robert Burns
FORT BLISS, Texas -- With a stop at this desert Army post on the last leg of his farewell tour as Pentagon chief, Chuck Hagel came full circle.
In 1967, a 20-year-old Hagel arrived at Fort Bliss for basic training, soon to be shipped to Vietnam for a life-changing war experience that gave him the distinction, nearly a half-century later, of being the only enlisted combat veteran to serve as secretary of defense.
Hagel is unlikely to be remembered as among the most accomplished defense chiefs, although he took on several tough problems including the transition out of a U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and trouble inside the U.S. nuclear missile corps.
He abruptly resigned on Nov. 24 under pressure from President Barack Obama, cutting short a tenure that never seemed to gain full traction after starting on a sour note in February 2013 with a contentious Senate confirmation hearing. Hagel agreed not to leave until his successor was in place; Ashton Carter, the nominee, is expected to be confirmed by the Senate in February.
Mindful that his time atop the U.S. military is ending, Hagel came to Fort Bliss to speak Thursday at the Army Sergeants Major Academy, the professional military education program for noncommissioned officers and enlisted soldiers, and to take a trip down memory lane at an Army post that traces its roots to the Indian wars of the mid-19th century.
It was his first return visit. Much has changed -- not least the fact that the soldiers here now are all volunteers. In Hagel's day, the ranks were filled with draftees, many reluctant or resentful, many unsuited for the rigors of combat.
In his remarks at the academy, Hagel recalled the harsh life of a recruit in the Army of the 1960s.