Thirty-eight years ago, Chuck Hagel, 21, and his brother, Tom, fought in house-to-house combat in the Cholon district of Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
Last week, on his 60th birthday, Hagel returned to the scene of the battle in early 1968. And almost everything has changed.
Once a rough and poor neighborhood infested by Viet Cong, the area now is an upscale sector of the city, with high-rise apartments and shops.
The Army sergeant from Nebraska who was twice wounded later in 1968 — along with his brother both times — now is a U.S. senator serving his second term.
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Hagel was in Vietnam last week as part of an Asian tour that also took him to Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. His itinerary happened to place him in Ho Chi Minh City on his birthday.
Thirty-eight years ago, he said, “I would have thought that would be the last place I would find myself on my 60th birthday.”
“It reminds us how important it is to understand history and reflect on the historic dynamics and consequences of a foreign policy decision, especially one to take a nation to war,” Hagel said.
“We need to always be mindful of unintended consequences, the uncontrollables.
“Was it worth it? Was there a better way, an alternative? It’s easy to get into war, not very easy to get out of it. We’re living through that again in Iraq.”
Today, Hagel said, “the strongest argument we hear is we can’t leave Iraq. It would make a mockery of the loss of lives. The same arguments were made about Vietnam. Those reflections poured over me as I walked the streets of Saigon.”
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