But Hagel, whose nomination to be secretary of defense is expected to be voted on soon by the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not toe the line.
Hagel’s actions at the VA 30 years ago, together with his experience as a combat-wounded Army sergeant in Vietnam, would give him unusual credibility at the Pentagon, according to veterans advocates, something they say could help him tackle some of the military’s biggest problems, including military suicide and long-standing turf battles between two of Washington’s largest bureaucracies: the Defense Department and the Veterans Affairs Department.
At what was then the Veterans Administration, Hagel soon had run-ins with his boss, VA Administrator Robert P. Nimmo, who had described Vietnam veterans as “crybabies” and likened the health effects of the herbicide Agent Orange to “teenage acne.” Nimmo imposed tight budget restrictions limiting psychiatric counseling available at veterans’ centers, yet he spent more than $54,000 to refurbish his office.
Hagel raised concerns with the Reagan administration, but the White House backed Nimmo, according to accounts at the time and interviews with associates. In response, Hagel resigned in June 1982. Later that year, Nimmo resigned in advance of a General Accounting Office report criticizing him for the renovation spending, which violated a presidential directive.
“Chuck was right to have left,” Harry N. Walters, who replaced Nimmo, said in an interview. “The White House wasn’t listening to him. I thought it was a sign of integrity.”
“He resigned because they were jerking us around on the Agent Orange stuff,” said John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America. “He stepped up and did the right thing, which is about unheard of in D.C. these days.”
Hagel made allies among the veteran service organizations that have lasted to this day.
“The veteran groups thought highly of him and were disappointed to see him go,” said Everett Alvarez Jr., a naval aviator who was held as a prisoner of war for eight years by North Vietnam and who replaced Hagel as deputy administrator at the VA.
“There’s widespread support across the veteran community for Chuck Hagel,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “In many ways, he’s a grunt, which is something I say as a positive thing.”
Some critics have questioned whether Hagel’s experiences three and four decades ago are relevant. Eliot A. Cohen, director of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has written that military service has little bearing on effectiveness of the civilian leader of the armed forces, and that it is the duty of the VA secretary, not the defense secretary, to care for veterans.