The new defense secretary's enlisted experience was met with a resounding "So what?" from conservative critics, but after a month on the job, the new Pentagon chief appears to have found his retinue.
Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Thursday he had conducted the first in a series of new monthly meetings with junior enlisted troops from across the services, stationed within the U.S. or returning from overseas.
Thursday's hour-and-a-half lunch session with the lowest members of the chain of command served as a way to "humanize" the new secretary's learning curve at the Pentagon, he said.
"You can have all the technology and advanced weapons, and plans and strategies, but if you don't have the right people, it won't work," said Hagel, who served as an Army sergeant in Vietnam. "It isn't just a matter of reassuring our people … but getting their feedback."
Participants can talk about whatever is on their minds and ask the secretary questions, he says. "But that's reciprocal. I get to ask them questions: What [do] they think? What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What are their concerns? What about their family? Are they going to stay in the military? How did they get here?"
President Barack Obama touted Hagel's service as an enlisted soldier among his highest qualifications for a role as secretary of defense. Hagel faced criticism from Capitol Hill and military experts who questioned how experience as an enlisted service member transferred to leading an organization as gargantuan as the Department of Defense.
A chain of command exists among enlisted troops flowing up to Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan B. Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs chairman and highest ranking noncommissioned officer. That position serves as a spokesman for enlisted personnel and is tasked with addressing their concerns.
No enlisted service member has ever served as defense secretary before. Hagel continued to break norms on his first day in office on February 28 by visiting enlisted advisers in their offices, instead of the usual inaugural practice of inviting senior advisers to the secretary's E-Ring suite.
"It's a tremendous way to humanize a relationship, but particularly important for me as I am new here," Hagel said. The new meetings will help him try to stay ahead of enlisted members' concerns, he said, "at a time that's very uncertain with budget issues and what's going on in the world."