WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, in his first few weeks as defense secretary, has faced trial by fire.
He's managing the sprawling Defense Department in the face of across-the-board budget cuts. Political pressure is mounting over how the military handles sexual assaults. And veterans' groups are objecting to the status afforded a new medal to recognize drone pilots and cyberwarriors.
Add in that his first official trip abroad, to Afghanistan, was marked by diplomatic fireworks and suicide bombings, and you'll see why he might have welcomed Thursday's brief respite.
The former GOP senator from Nebraska enjoyed a ceremonial swearing-in with family, friends and former aides. There were plenty of VIPs on hand as well, including current and former Cabinet secretaries and U.S. senators. Also in the audience were Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Gallup CEO Jim Clifton.
Even some of Hagel's old buddies from the Vietnam War turned up to celebrate with him. Hagel is the first enlisted man who never later became an officer to serve as secretary.
His close friend Vice President Joe Biden administered the oath of office before a packed Pentagon auditorium.
Biden recalled the various trips he took with Hagel to war zones when the two served in the Senate together. Biden said other senators focused on speaking to top commanders, but not Hagel.
“He was literally outside talking to the noncommissioned officers, to the sergeants, to the corporals, literally trying to figure out what they were thinking,” Biden said. “So it should scare the hell out of you generals you have a noncommissioned (officer in charge).”
In his own remarks, Hagel hit familiar themes, reiterating his commitment to the men and women in uniform and their families. He also spoke about the modern world's many challenges, threats and opportunities.
And he set high goals for his tenure.
“Together, we will make this a better world, and we will make a better world for all mankind,” Hagel said.
There were some light moments, from Biden teasing Hagel about his post-Senate life as a professor to Hagel mocking Biden's beloved Philadelphia Eagles.
Hagel cracked jokes about his difficult confirmation process. Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee grilled him over past statements during his testimony.
In contrast, Hagel was greeted Thursday with kind words and standing ovations.
“This kind of warm welcome — last time I received something quite like this was in the United States Senate at my confirmation hearing,” Hagel quipped.
He also referred to the criticism he has received over the past few months.
“There is not much skin left.”
And the job itself hasn't turned out to be any easier.
During his visit to Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai accused the United States of being in league with the Taliban, and multiple suicide bombings rocked the country, though Hagel was never in danger.
After returning to Washington this week, Hagel announced that he would review a senior official's decision to overturn the sexual assault conviction of an airman at Aviano Air Base in Italy and has sought to assure lawmakers and the public that he takes the problem of sexual assault in the military seriously.
In a stinging rebuke of the military's efforts to curb the assaults, members of a Senate panel hammered defense officials on Wednesday for making too little progress in combating the crimes.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, has introduced legislation to strip commanders of their authority to overturn court-martial outcomes and on Thursday requested a meeting with Hagel.
On another front, Hagel has ordered a review of the Pentagon's decision before he arrived to place the new medal for drone pilots and cyber warriors ahead of traditional combat medals such as the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Veterans groups have objected to the ranking of the medal, and lawmakers, including Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., wrote Hagel recently voicing concerns.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said this week that production of the medal has been stopped pending the review.
“He's heard their concerns.”
This report contains material from World-Herald Press Services.
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