News Column

Hagel Wouldn't Be First Enlisted Sec. of Defense After All

Feb. 5, 2013

Craig Gilbert

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

It has been widely reported since Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary that he'd be the first former enlisted man to serve in that office.

But that overlooks several former Pentagon chiefs, including Wisconsin's own Mel Laird, now 90, who served as defense secretary under Richard Nixon in the latter years of the Vietnam War.

Laird enlisted in the Navy during Word War II, eventually becoming an officer and seeing combat on a destroyer in the Pacific.

"It doesn't bother me," Laird said in an interview Monday, though he expressed surprise the record hadn't been set straight before now.

This Associated Press report cites three other former defense secretaries who spent part of their military service in the enlisted ranks.

When President Barack Obama announced Hagel's nomination as defense secretary Jan. 7, he said Hagel would be "the first person of enlisted rank" to hold that office.

A White House spokesman said Tuesday that formulation was intended to refer to Hagel's highest rank in the military -- meaning Hagel would be the first defense secretary who served only in the enlisted ranks.

But whatever the intended meaning, this particular factoid about Hagel has been restated in language that is clearly wrong.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin said at the outset of Hagel's rocky nomination hearing last week that "if confirmed, Senator Hagel would be the first former enlisted man" to serve as secretary of defense.

And numerous media reports have said Hagel would be the first enlisted man to serve as defense secretary.

The Defense Department's own website states that Laird, for example, "entered the United States Navy as an enlisted man," before getting his commission as an ensign. Laird was an officer when he was wounded by shrapnel aboard the USS Maddox during a kamikaze attack, according to a biography of Laird, "With Honor."

Hagel is expected to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate in the coming days, despite a stormy eight-hour confirmation hearing.

Laird's confirmation hearing after the 1968 election went a bit differently than Hagel's, as Laird recalled. Laird, a veteran GOP congressman, was introduced by his state's two Democratic senators, Gaylord Nelson and Bill Proxmire, and his nomination was quickly sent to the floor. The hearing itself lasted about 15 or 20 minutes, he said.

Laird said he watched the Hagel hearing on television, and thought Hagel "wasn't prepared as well as he should have been." Laird also said he thought the hearing was so dominated by foreign policy that issues specific to the Pentagon and military were given short shrift.

Source: (c)2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by MCT Information Services

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