Hagel wants to give some Vietnam veterans a second chance

Updated 7:27 PM EST, Tue November 11, 2014

Story highlights

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has directed the Pentagon to reassess Vietnam era discharges

The move could allow veterans who were never diagnosed with PTSD the ability to claim some benefits

Homelessness and suicide among Vietnam veterans has led to calls for change

Editor’s Note: Barbara Starr’s interview with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will air Tuesday, Nov. 11, on CNN’s The Situation Room

(CNN) —  

Memories of his own service in Vietnam and the destructive nature of combat are never far from the mind of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the first former enlisted man to lead the Pentagon.

“Every Vietnam veteran understands,” Hagel told CNN’s Barbara Starr during an interview outside his office in the Pentagon. “Any veteran who has ever served in a war understands that, and I think we should never forget the consequences of war.”

Decades after the U.S. conflict in Vietnam, Hagel is using the power of his office to help some of the most troubled veterans of that war get the second chance he feels some deserve.

He is essentially ordering the Pentagon to open the books and allow some veterans of that war with less than honorable discharges to be classified as suffering from post traumatic stress and allow that to be a considered factor in their discharge.

Related: Chuck Hagel reunites with Vietnam platoon commander

The move could potentially allow thousands of veterans who did not qualify for disability pay because of their discharge status to finally be compensated.

For Hagel, who served as a senior official in the Veterans Department during the early years of the Reagan administration, the time has come to address an issue overshadowing veterans of his war, that has really only come to the forefront recent years.

“I just really felt, as I always have, that they deserve a little break here lets take another look,” Hagel said of the policy change. “I think a lot of people were treated unfairly because there was no recognition of PTSD.”

It is a recognition that many feel is long overdue.

“In our generation, there was the term the ‘crazy’ Vietnam vet,” Steve Peck, a former Marine who fought in Vietnam, said recently. “You know, guys shooting up gas stations, and robbing stores, and, you know, going off and killing people. That was the impression of Vietnam veterans when they came back.”

Peck has spent his career advocating for veterans of that war and trying to shine a light on a mental condition that was not recognized and may have unfairly penalized some of those who came home.

“It was just seen an as aberration, it was not seen as something that was a natural result of being in combat, and that’s why so many Vietnam vets are so alienated,” Peck said.

With most Vietnam vets now in their sixties and seventies, time is a precious commodity. And with high rates of homelessness, depression and suicide among the group, the drumbeat for this recognition has grown louder.

CNN visited a facility in Long Beach, California taking care of more than 500 homeless veterans, many of them from Vietnam who are still struggling from that long ago war.

“I used to have nightmares when I came home and pretty much blocked it out of my mind,” said Joel Hunt, a resident of the facility who was sent to Vietnam when he was 19.

He is glad the government is looking to do more for some of his buddies.

“I think it’s great because you know we were drafted, we were forced to go,” he said.

Some forty years later, the man who runs the Pentagon, fully understands the challenges his fellow veterans faced after coming home.

“No one was ever told about what you would be dealing with or any kind of reaction to war, or the horrors of war,” Hagel said.

And with the job, came an opportunity to address an oversight affecting many of his fellow veterans

“I think it’s a responsibility I have,” Hagel said. “I think that any Vietnam veteran who had the privilege of holding this job that I have would do the same thing, and I just think it’s an obligation I have to those I served with.”