Chuck Hagel

Chuck Hagel Biography

U.S. Representative (1946–)
Chuck Hagel cofounded Vanguard Cellular Systems, is a former Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, and served as U.S. secretary of defense under President Barack Obama.


Chuck Hagel was born on October 4, 1946, in North Platte, Nebraska. From 1971 to 1977 he worked for Representative John McCollister and in 1981 was appointed deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. In the mid-1980s, he cofounded Vanguard Cellular Systems. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996 and re-elected in 2002, retiring in 2008. In January of 2013, he was nominated as secretary of defense by President Barack Obama and confirmed during the following month. Hagel announced his resignation from the post in late 2014. 

Early Life

Chuck Hagel was born Charles Timothy Hagel on October 4, 1946, in North Platte, Nebraska. Raised in the Sand Hills and rural towns of western Nebraska, Hagel lost his father when he was just 16 years old. Having taken his first job at the tender age of 9, the young Hagel was no stranger to work. Following his father’s death, he helped support the family.

When Hagel graduated from St. Bonaventure High School, he decided to pursue his interest in broadcasting. In 1966, he enrolled at the Brown Institute for Radio and Television in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but left a year later after being drafted into the Army and opting to serve in the Vietnam War, along with his brother Tom. Hagel was wounded twice while serving, incurring burn wounds that would take years to fully heal, and earned two Purple Hearts. After a year in Vietnam, he went back to school at the University of Nebraska, receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1971.

Communications Career

Concurrent with completing his education, Hagel entered a career in broadcasting. From 1969 to 1971, he worked at two Omaha radio stations—KBON and KLNG—as a newscaster, disc jockey and talk-show host. In 1971 he would take leave from his communications career to pursue politics. But Hagel hardly abandoned this passion entirely; in the mid-1980s he co-founded the publicly traded Vanguard Cellular Systems, which went on to become the second largest cell phone company in the country. He also later became a member of the board of directors of the Public Broadcasting System.

Life in Politics

Hagel broke away from his budding radio career in 1971 to take a job under Republican Nebraska Representative John McCollister. Gradually, Hagel worked his way up to McCollister’s chief of staff. In 1977, after McCollister lost his Senate race, Hagel took up lobbying, managing government affairs for Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Washington, D.C.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan appointed Hagel deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. During the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, Hagel also took on the role of deputy commissioner general.

Elected U.S. Senator

Hagel began his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1995, just after Senator Jim Exon announced his retirement. Upon making it to Congress, Hagel strove for, and attained, a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. In 1997 he supported the treaty against land mines. And in 1999 he opposed the test-ban treaty but voted in favor of bombing Serbia that spring. Preceding the 2000 presidential elections, Hagel supported John McCain in the primaries.

In 2002, Hagel was re-elected to the Senate and attacked the George W. Bush administration for its Iraq War policies, voicing skepticism as to whether Iraq truly had access to weapons of mass destruction. Following his retirement from Congress in 2009, Hagel began teaching at Georgetown University. 

Appointed Secretary of Defense

In January 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Hagel for secretary of defense, and he was confirmed by the Senate late the following month. His full tenure was marked by involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, a call to drastically reduce the military's budget and efforts to review major issues among personnel within the armed forces, such as sexual assault. 

In November of 2014, Hagel announced that he would resign from his position, with insiders stating they believed he was pushed out by the president due to staunch disagreements over foreign policy and the handling of Guantánamo Bay. Hagel will remain in his position until a new secretary is nominated and confirmed.

Personal Life

Having been previously married for a brief time, Hagel and his current wife Lilibet have two children, Allyn and Ziller. In addition to his family life and work in politics and communications, Hagel serves on the boards of numerous institutions. He has been a trustee at Hastings College and Bellevue University. He has also served as co-chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Corporate Council.

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