U.S. service members said they were surprised by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's resignation and had mixed reactions to his relatively short tenure.
Hagel joined President Obama at the White House during a brief ceremony Monday morning to announce that after less than two years in the job, he plans to resign once a successor is named by the commander-in-chief and confirmed by the Senate.
The leadership change comes as Obama's administration struggles to deal with crises at home and abroad, from military budget cuts to operations against militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in the Middle East.
Army Staff Sgt. Isaac Vargas, 37, a noncommissioned officer in charge at Fort Riley, Kansas, said he was caught off-guard by the news that Hagel was stepping down.
"When I heard about it this morning, as a lot of people were, I was definitely surprised," he said in a telephone interview. "I thought he was doing the job that he was asked to do and I thought he was doing it well."
Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and longtime Republican senator from Nebraska who broke with his party to oppose the U.S.-led war in Iraq, was tapped in 2013 to succeed Leon Panetta in the Pentagon's top post. But he stumbled out of the gate when he was barely confirmed by the Senate after a lackluster performance during his confirmation hearing.
What's more, he pledged to carry out the administration's policy of preparing the department for an era of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration in part by drawing down the force and scaling back troop pay and benefits – policies that have met stiff resistance from troops and veterans groups.
Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Brandon McIntyre, 37, a yeoman in New Orleans said he was happy to see Hagel go. In fact, he said, the onetime enlisted soldier who received two Purple Hearts for his actions in Vietnam was his least-favorite defense secretary in his 15 years of military service.
"I'm glad for the change because, quite frankly, I don't think he had troops in mind," McIntyre said. "Even though he was a former troop himself, he was more of a politician. I'd rather have somebody who spoke for us."
Others disagreed, saying Hagel's hands were tied when it came to the personnel cutbacks.
Army Lt. Col. Johnathan Hurwitz, 46, an acquisition officer at the Missile Defense Agency, said he has served as a state delegate in Nebraska and has known Hagel on and off throughout his career. Like the other service members quoted in this article, he spoke to Military.com to offer his personal opinions – not those of his leadership or the military overall.
"I was pretty surprised this morning because he was brought on to do very specific things for the Department of Defense – from budget paring to realigning of troops to the closure of various mission sets in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. "It seemed to me like he was on the right course."
Hurwitz added, "Were people grumbling about the troop drawdowns? Were people upset about things like that? Sure. But you can't blame him necessarily. He has to take direction from Congress."
Whatever they thought of Hagel, sources interviewed for this article urged his successor to think about the sacrifices troops make before moving ahead with plans to cut personnel costs.
The Pentagon in its fiscal 2015 budget request proposed cutting troop pay raises to 1 percent from the statutory 1.8 percent, curbing basic allowances for housing (BAH) by 5 percent over three years, and increasing Tricare pharmacy co-pays.
Pentagon officials have said the changes are needed rein in personnel costs, which are budgeted at $177 billion in fiscal 2015, or more than a third of the department's non-war budget of $496 billion. Including civilian personnel, the percentage rises to almost half of the spending plan.
Vargas, the NCO at Fort Riley, said the proposed cutbacks are coming at a time of the military is facing more missions around the world, from fighting ISIS in the Middle East to containing Russia in Europe to helping treat Ebola in Africa, to shifting more forces to the Asia-Pacific region.
"We're being stretched out so far," he said, "but we're being asked to give more."
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at email@example.com