President Obama shakes hands with former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska as Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, second from left, and first lady Michelle Obama, third from left, look on May 28 during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
When President Obama nominated former Army infantry sergeant Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon, it was not the first time the 66-year-old Republican was tapped for a political job.
In 1981, President Reagan appointed Hagel the No. 2 man at what was then known as the Veterans Administration.
It was a tumultuous time for VA, just eight years after the last American troops withdrew from Vietnam. Thousands of combat veterans came home to a stalled economy, and many suffered post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Hagel took the job but abruptly resigned 10 months later because he thought his boss, Veterans Administrator Robert Nimmo, wasn't doing enough for veterans.
The two "had some very deep-seated disagreements," Charlyne Berens, author of the 2006 biography, "Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward," told Military Times.
Hagel's stint at VA offers a window into how he might manage the Pentagon. His Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Jan. 31.
The former GOP senator from Nebraska has faced criticism from many Republicans for his opposition to the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, his cautionary stance toward Iran and past comments that the Pentagon budget is "bloated."
Yet Washington insiders say his support among many Democrats and longtime national security professionals make it likely he will be confirmed to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Nimmo once called Vietnam vets "a bunch of crybabies" on television and tried to shut down VA's network of neighborhood-based outpatient clinics that were helping many vets with mental health problems.
He also dismissed health concerns related to exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide widely used by U.S. forces in Vietnam that is now linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems. In 1981, Nimmo said Agent Orange caused symptoms similar to "teenage acne."
Hagel has not often discussed his resignation from VA publicly.
He told Berens "it was just dishonest to stay," according to her book.
Nimmo resigned two months after Hagel amid various accusations of impropriety.
Berens said Hagel's time at VA highlights the impact of his Vietnam experience on his approach to politics and management.
"It indicates that he really would not ignore or forget about the individual who is actually out there doing the serving and the fighting," Berens said.
Electronic health records
Former VA staffers also recall Hagel as an early advocate for electronic health records. Hagel supported an ad hoc group of computer programmers at VA hospitals across the country that was working on a decentralized, user-friendly computer network to track patients' clinical information.
It ran into heavy resistance from some VA officials in Washington who were skeptical of the programmers' efforts and advocated a more centralized approach.
But Hagel supported the programmers and their project.
"He was really the first senior-level person to say, ‘Let's do it,'" recalled Tom Munnecke, a computer specialist who worked for the VA hospital in Loma Linda, Calif., in the early 1980s. "He had that vision, and he was also irreverent enough to the bureaucracy to stick his neck out and say, ‘This is the way we want to go.'"
Hagel's support led to an $80 million pilot program that set up local information technology offices in 172 VA hospitals nationwide, Munnecke said.
The program ultimately was a success, in part because Hagel helped ensure the annual evaluation given to local hospital administrators was linked to their support for the fledgling computer network.
That computer network evolved into the one VA uses today — the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture.