WASHINGTON - Chuck Hagel was sworn in Wednesday as defense secretary - President Barack Obama's third in just over four years - and said that one of his highest priorities will be ensuring fair treatment of troops, veterans and their families.
He called the automatic budget cuts due to take effect on Friday - to include $46 billion in Pentagon reductions - "a reality" that "we need to deal with."
In 15 minutes of remarks to Pentagon employees shortly after becoming the nation's 24th secretary of defense, Hagel struck a tone of humility and cast himself as prepared to take on the full range of national security challenges.
A veteran of combat in Vietnam, Hagel said he would strive to be "the kind of leader that you expect and you deserve - also the kind of leader the country expects and deserves."
Hagel, 66, a former two-term Republican Nebraska senator, was introduced to his Pentagon audience by a fellow Nebraskan - Army Sgt. 1st Class John Wirth, of Gordon, Neb., a veteran of the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Hagel succeeds Leon Panetta, who became Pentagon chief in July 2011, replacing Obama's first defense secretary, former CIA chief Robert Gates.
Hagel said that after taking the oath of office he spent a few minutes walking through an outdoor memorial to victims of those killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, recalling that he was on Capitol Hill at the moment a hijacked American Airlines jet slammed into the Pentagon.
He said he "reflected a bit on what happened that day," when nearly 3,000 people were killed in New York City, Washington and in rural Pennsylvania. Quoting what he called the words of Winston Churchill, Hagel said, "that was a jarring gong," that set in motion dynamics "that we are living with today."
Hagel took the helm after a bruising Senate confirmation process. He was spending the rest of his first day in the Pentagon meeting with his staff and senior defense leaders.
The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm him. The vote was 58-41, with four Republicans joining the Democrats in backing the contentious choice.
Hagel's only GOP support came from former colleagues Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Dick Shelby of Alabama and Mike Johanns of Nebraska - all three had announced their support earlier - and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
The vote came just hours after Republicans dropped their unprecedented delay of a Pentagon choice and allowed the nomination to move forward on a 71-27 vote.
Republicans had opposed their onetime colleague, casting him as unqualified for the job, hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran. The objections remained strong well after the vote.
"I continue to have serious questions about whether Chuck Hagel is up to the job of being our secretary of defense," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement. "I hope, for the sake of our own national security, he exceeds expectations."
Hagel joins Obama's retooled second-term, national security team of Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director-designate John Brennan at a time of uncertainty for a military emerging from two wars and fighting worldwide terrorism with smaller, deficit-driven budgets.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.