National Archives News

Hagel Brothers Share Vietnam War Story

By Kerri Lawrence  |  National Archives News

WASHINGTON, November 9, 2017 — They were two brothers serving in one combat unit, who between them earned five Purple Hearts. Theirs is a tale of military service and sacrifice in Vietnam. Brothers Chuck and Tom Hagel shared their story with the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration earlier this week.

Chuck Hagel, who went on to become a U.S. Senator, and later served as the Secretary of Defense, and his younger brother, Tom Hagel, shared several anecdotes of their service, their memories, and their beliefs about the Vietnam War and the political climate during those turbulent times. Author and retired U.S. Army Lt. General Daniel P. Bolger—who told the Hagels' story in his book, Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided—moderated the discussion.

“The Hagel brothers’ willingness to share their stories reflects a degree of moral courage equivalent to the bravery they showed time and time again under fire in Vietnam,” Bolger said in his book.

The young Nebraska natives enlisted in the U.S. Army as infantrymen just weeks apart in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. Both men volunteered to be sent to Vietnam to fight for U.S. forces. They also requested to serve together.

The brothers ended up serving side by side in the same rifle platoon. They fought together in the Mekong Delta. They walked point together in the grenade-laced jungles. They battled snipers in Saigon. And, ultimately, they saved each other’s lives under enemy fire. Both men sustained war injuries and both earned Purple Hearts for their bravery in combat. The only difference between them was that one supported the war and the other detested it; but they fought it together.

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Hagel Brothers Share their Story of Service in the Vietnam War

Author and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, second from left, brothers Tom Hagel, left, and Chuck Hagel, right, pose for a photo with Deputy Archivist of the United States Debra Wall while visiting the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The brothers discussed their service in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.  (National Archives photo by Kerri Lawrence)

“I decided that if I was going to be in the Army, and I was going to serve my country at a time when we were at war, that I wanted to go to Vietnam,” Chuck Hagel said. Tom volunteered about a month later to serve with his brother in Vietnam, even though he disagreed with the war itself.  

Bolger explained that “what was really unusual about Chuck and Tom, they didn’t just serve together in a large 20,000 person outfit, they were in the same rifle platoon, which is about 30–40 soldiers . . . so they really served next to one another.”  

The brothers told how the growing antiwar sentiment in the United States affected them and other soldiers fighting grizzly battles in the jungles of Vietnam. They shared how the turmoil and racial tensions back home, particularly when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, affected relationships within the troops half-way around the world. They shared perspectives on the 1968 Tet Offensive, a critical turning point in the war and politically in America. They each praised the honor and bravery the other brother exhibited in battle.

Bolger used records at the National Archives to help tell the Hagel’s story and confirm details of their military service.

“For anybody writing about history in America, the National Archives is stop number one,” he said.

Bolger explained how military records at the National Archives provided details of the men’s service. He also noted that the National Archives’ photo collection helped to paint a vivid picture of Bearcat, the base installation of the Hagel brothers’ 9th Infantry Division.

This week, the National Archives debuts a new exhibit centering around the Vietnam chapter in U.S. history. The exhibit, entitled “Remembering Vietnam,” opens to the public on Friday, November 10, 2017, in honor of Veterans Day.

The exhibit is a media-rich exploration of the Vietnam War, featuring interviews with American and Vietnamese veterans and civilians with first-hand experience of the war’s events as well as historic analysis. The collection includes newly discovered and iconic original documents, images, film footage, and artifacts that illuminate 12 critical episodes in the war that divided the populations of both the United States and Vietnam.

This program was one of many the National Archives has hosted and will be hosting within the coming months in conjunction with the new exhibit. Read the AOTUS blog post for more information on the exhibit.