Hagel's Enlisted Chats: Fruit of Knowledge or Poisoned Apple?

Defense secretary could get just what he asked for in chats with lowest ranks.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon March 28.

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Chuck Hagel announced March 29 he will act on his name-brand affection for enlisted troops by hosting a monthly lunch with a group of young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

This tactic of circumnavigating the chain of command and drinking straight from the well of military gripes has raised eyebrows in the past. Rep. Jack Murtha, the late Pennsylvania Democrat, went to bat for young soldiers he met in 2009 who said their uniforms didn't provide adequate camouflage. The resulting change prompted the Government Accountability Office to lambast the Army for wasteful spending.

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"This secretary of defense is interested in hearing from a full range of personnel across the department," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on April 2. "He's someone who listens carefully, takes everyone's opinion into account. He's not looking just for the advice of people like me who sit in the senior ranks of the Pentagon."

Military experts say this tack might be just what the new "secdef" needs as America tries to reestablish itself as a peacetime nation.

"For anybody who says this is bad for the chain of command, I think there is a tree-forest issue. They have to see the big picture," says Roger Cressey, a former National Security Council staffer and senior adviser to the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

"What's implied is that the secretary is incapable of taking in all sorts of different types of data," he says. "For the type of choices the department is going to have to make, the best thing he can do is communicate with the rank and file."

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One of the greatest challenges working in senior positions at the Pentagon is the isolation that comes along with it, Cressey says. Rectifying that requires speaking to small groups beyond the E-Ring offices, and combining that with advice from senior leadership.

"That's going to give you a better perspective on what to do to support the soldier," he says.

"What we're seeing is Secretary Hagel emerging as the 'secdef' with his own style of leadership," says Rudy DeLeon, who served as the deputy secretary of defense before retiring in 2001. "Each secretary has found his own way of staying in touch with the younger guys in the field."

This group of young people is a particularly good source of information, he adds, as many of them have already endured multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. This kind of dialogue led to the creation of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles that helped soldiers in Iraq endure the highly deadly small bombs insurgents used to fight.

Access to that brand of unvarnished information also lessens the chance that the secretary will be surprised by questions from reporters, such as inquiries into the tremendous backlog at the now-defunct Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

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"He has lots of ways to know what the Joint Chiefs are thinking," DeLeon says. "Each secretary has found his own way of staying in touch with the younger guys in the field."

Derek Bennett served two tours in Iraq as a scout platoon leader and later as executive officer and troop commander. The former captain and West Point graduate would often "walk the motor pool," and encouraged his subordinate leaders to do the same, to get a direct sense of "what the reality is."

"The further away you get from the entry level, the further you get from the rifleman holding the rifle – the pointy end of the spear," says Bennett, now the chief of staff for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. This hampers the ability of decision makers to see the effect their policies where it matters.

"It's important to have that touchplate," he says, particularly amid the sweeping changes the military faces after repealing "don't ask, don't tell," introducing women into combat roles and bracing for sequestration cuts. "It may or may not affect [Hagel's] decision-making but it's about getting the data and getting the information."