By Mike Mount
Badly burned after his armored personnel carrier hit a land mine in Vietnam, Hagel sat in a medical evacuation helicopter thinking of the horrors he had experienced during his time in combat there.
Sitting on that helicopter with injuries that would take years to heal, Hagel thought to himself, "If I ever get out, if I ever can influence anything, I will do all I can to prevent war," Hagel would later tell his biographer, Charlyne Berens.
The moment became a seminal one for the young soldier who volunteered to join the Army and ended up serving a year-long tour in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, considered the most violent time of that war.
If former Senator Chuck Hagel gets nominated to be the next Secretary of Defense, it won't be a smooth ride to confirmation.
Getting to the Pentagon will mean overcoming an already vocal opposition from pro-Israel groups and others who object to his stance on Iran and Hamas. One group began running ads on Washington-area television stations on Thursday, even though the administration has not said he is the president's choice.
He faced new opposition late this week from gay rights groups, who were strong supporters of President Obama's election campaigns, for a comment Hagel made in 1998 in which Hagel questioned whether a nominee for ambassadorship was suitable because he was "openly aggressively gay."
Should he be selected to replace Leon Panetta though, he will bring to the Pentagon a distinct bias towards avoiding armed conflict.
He served, by a clerical mistake, side by side with his younger brother and earned two Purple Hearts, one of those for saving his brother's life. The second one was for shrapnel he took in the chest while on patrol with his brother by his side, who saved his older brother's life while patching up his wound.
His time in Vietnam would end up forging his thoughts about combat for the rest of his life, and defining him on Capitol Hill as a U.S. Senator with an independent streak often sidestepping his Republican colleagues.
"Not that I'm a pacifist, I'm a hard-edged realist, I understand the world as it is, but war is a terrible thing. There's no glory, only suffering," he is quoted in his 2006 biography.
Hagel used his Vietnam experience when he became an early critic of the Iraq war including the plat to putting more troops into that country for the surge, calling it, "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out."
Those decisions did not sit well with his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, and it hurt his chances for the Senator to move up the ranks to any power position.
But while serving in the Senate he became close with then Senator Obama, and they seemed to find common ground on thoughts about the use of military force and Hagel's fairly moderate approach to foreign relations issues. Obama also appreciated Hagels willingness to buck his own party.
The two of them and Sen. Jack Reed also toured parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, in 2008.
"It was an extraordinary trip," Sen. Jack Reed told Security Clearance. "There was just an exchange of ideas about the region and I think the president was also impressed with not only his understanding but the questions he raised, not just with the President but with the foreign leaders that we met," Reed said of the conversation between Hagel and then Sen. Obama.
Hagel and Obama also have common ground when it comes to Iran. Both of them believe in a dialogue to be open between the U.S. and its adversary, though Hagel as argued against sanctions for Iran, while the President has tightened the screws on Iran with tougher sanctions.
"By refusing to engage Iran, we are perpetuating dangerous geo-political unpredictabilities," Hagel said in a 2007 speech. "Our refusal to recognize Iran's influence does not decrease its influence, but rather increases it. Engagement creates dialogue and opportunities to identify common interests, demonstrate America's strengths, as well as make clear disagreements," he said.
And this past September Hagel co-authored an opinion piece in the Washington Post backing the idea of, "keeping all options on the table" for stopping Iran's nuclear program.
"Since the consequences of a military attack are so significant for U.S. interests, we seek to ensure that the spectrum of objectives, as well as potential consequences, is understood," it read, which did not leave out the possibility of using military force.
"That's not going to be his view as far as dealing with them in this position as secretary of defense. The president will tell him, direct him what the policy is," said William Cohen, a former Republican Defense Secretary who served under President Clinton.
He has also opposed efforts to isolate militant groups like Hamas, which has also inflamed many including pro Israeli organizations.
"I don't think its going to be very fruitful to have a separate discussion with Hamas. Unless they give up this notion that they are going to continue to raise warfare against Israel, then I don't see any profit in talking with them, in negotiating with them," Cohen said.
If he is confirmed, Hagel will face the challenge of closing the final chapter on the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and oversee the continued footprint of a smaller U.S. training force there.
Hagel has been critical on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. In 2009 he opposed President Obama's move to surge 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, telling the National Journal, "I'm not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan." "It's not sustainable at all, I think we're marking time as we slaughter more young people."
Later he called for the U.S. to stop its "nation-building" there. In 2010 Hagel argued, "We are where we are today – going into our 10th year in Afghanistan, our longest war – because we did take our eye of the ball," he said. "We really made some big mistakes during that time. I have never believed you can go into any country and nation build, and unfortunately I think that's what we've gotten ourselves bogged down in," he told the Washington Diplomat after leaving his seat in the Senate.
Hagel has also spent time in Pakistan and co-chaired a 2009 Atlantic Council report with Sen. John Kerry that concluded Pakistan faced, "dire economic and security threats that threaten both the existence of Pakistan as a democratic and stable state and the region as a whole."
"The U.S. also needs to urgently close the "Trust Deficit" between it and Pakistan, with greater exchanges of high-level visits, closer military, intelligence, and economic cooperation," according to the report.
But Hagel's most immediate issue he will face if he is nominated will be the future of the Pentagon's budget.
Just days until the U.S. reaches the edge of the "fiscal cliff" where the Defense Department faces a half-trillion dollar cut on top of already planned $500 billion in cuts, Hagel believes the Pentagon's budget is overweight.
"The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated," Hagel said in a September 2011 interview with the Financial Times. "So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down," Hagel said.
"Members of Congress who will be look at the budget that he will have to try and manage the downsizing of, so having great lines of communications, respect with members of Congress is going to be key for him," Cohen said.