Chuck Hagel: A Christmas Present, and Past

(Melina Mara/twp - Twp)

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By Laura Blumenfeld
Thursday, December 22, 2005

On camera, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) wore concealer under his eyes, covering the shadows from a late last night. On camera, on "Face the Nation," the senator analyzed Iraq, and during breaks he parried questions about running for president. On camera, on Sunday morning, he was loose and concise, while Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) opined through clenched incisors, and the CBS audio assistant snored.

Then Hagel, 59, unclipped his microphone, and the techs dimmed the lights. He stepped out of the studio and off camera.

"Last night, I stayed home with the dog," Hagel said, the words spilling, messy and excited. The election in Iraq was historic, but so was this small piece of personal history: "A big box arrived."

Hagel's Aunt Doris, 92, had found a box from his father. Inside were schoolboy pictures; letters his father, Charles, had written as a tail gunner in World War II; napkins from his wedding -- Valentine's Day, 1946.

"My father died when I was in high school," Hagel said. He hadn't seen his handwriting or heard his thoughts since.

All day Saturday, at home in McLean, Hagel had holed up with the box. In the evening, Hagel asked his wife, Lilibet, to take their teenage children to the movies. Hagel sat in silence in the library, reading more than a hundred letters, as his great-grandmother's clock chimed every half-hour.

"This is a treasure chest," Hagel said, weeks later, as he dipped his hands into the box. "Here's 1945, '44, '43," he said, holding up batches of yellowing letters with 6-cent U.S. Army stamps.

Although he reluctantly agreed to show them, Hagel hadn't shared them with anyone yet, not even with his wife. Reading his father's letters was a raw and awkward rite, a reunion with a man lost for 43 years. "You need to sit back and savor them," Hagel said. "Rather than go through like a corn sheller."

Here is what Hagel had known about his father: He married Betty after the war, and later that year they had Chuck. He was tough on his younger son, Tom. He was strapping.

Here is what Hagel learned from the letters: He married Betty despite his parents' concerns and his sister's suggestion that he date "Grace." His handwriting was identical to Tom's. His sister called him "Pee Wee."

Hagel also discovered his father's feelings about war. "My father was about the same age in the war as I had been," Hagel said, touching his temples. In Vietnam, Chuck, 21, and brother Tom, 19, had fought and nearly died together as infantry squad leaders. In 1968, their armored personnel carrier hit a 500-pound mine. It blew out Chuck's eardrums, set him on fire -- "the whole left side of my face bubbled." Chuck pulled Tom, unconscious, from the burning gunner turret. Chuck saved his brother's life just months after Tom had saved his, when shrapnel ripped Chuck's chest.

"We had hundreds of conversations -- if our dad would have lived, what would he think of the world?" Hagel said.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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