This article was originally published in the 2022 1st Quarter edition of Reserve & National Guard Magazine.
Pete Hegseth is a familiar face across the FOX News Channel, where he joined the network as a contributor in 2014. But before delivering commentary and analysis to millions of viewers, he was a soldier in the Army National Guard.
Hegseth didn’t come from a military family, but he considered service throughout most of his youth. After graduating high school, he attended Princeton University over West Point – admittedly due to his passion for basketball. The itch to wear the uniform never went away, he said.
He signed up for Army ROTC on his college campus in the spring of 2001 and committed to an Army National Guard contract. Hegseth says he has watched as the role of reserve forces evolved from generation to generation.
“Vietnam created this perception of the National Guard which was almost cartoonish,” he said.
The attacks of 9/11 would change that.
“It was a validator for me and an entire generation,” Hegseth said.
After completing college and basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, Hegseth was deployed to Guantanamo Bay for a year guarding imprisoned terrorists.
“Then I came home and I went back to my civilian job,” he explained. “But it was one of those moments where I didn’t feel at home in the civilian world because our generation was mobilized for war now.”
He switched units and volunteered to deploy to Iraq as an infantry officer.
“All of this is a tiny sliver of what the guys and gals have been a part of over the past 20 years, which has intermixed the Guard and reserve with the active component,” he added.
9/11 brought ‘recognition’ to National Guard
More than 337,000 soldiers from the Army National Guard have been mobilized since 9/11, according to the National Guard Bureau, with more than 221,000 deploying to Iraq and more than 116,600 to Afghanistan. Data for the Air National Guard was not available at the time of reporting.
“Not only do you have the possibility of deployment and integration into the total force, you have these still traditional state obligations. Now increasingly, unfortunately, in the last couple of years the civil unrest has led to the National Guard being called,” he said. “But it was the attacks of 9/11 which brought the recognition of what the Guard and reserve really does. I was fortunate enough from, from my view, to be a small part of it.”
Despite the increased op tempo, challenges continue for guardsmen and reservists in terms of resources, and community and reintegration can feel isolating, he said. Hegseth was open about his experiences, particularly after returning from Iraq.
“I went from being in a combat zone to being in an apartment in Manhattan and without any contact other than phone calls here or an email here or there with the guys who I had served with, and it was jarring,” he said. “I didn’t do much and I drank a lot trying to process what I had been through while dealing with a civilian world that frankly just didn’t seem to care.”
Attitudes towards the Iraq War had turned negative, particularly in New York where he was working and living.
“It took me a while to get my footing,” Hegseth said.
It wasn’t long before he realized he no longer wanted to maintain his career on Wall Street.
“The hardest part for me was finding my next chapter of purpose. What you do in uniform is so purposeful,” he said. “I met a Marine at an event in New York, and he happened to run a vets organization for Iraq and Afghanistan vets called Vets for Freedom.”
The men connected immediately, and it wasn’t long before the Marine veteran asked Hegseth to run the organization for him.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know if it would work,” he laughed. “I actually didn’t set out to be a part of a veterans organization. I thank God for those chance meetings that happened.”
Hegseth kept pushing and believing it could work. He led the nonprofit from 2007 until he left in 2012, when he went back on active duty and volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan. Then, two years later, he joined FOX News.
“I take very seriously the responsibility that I have as one of the few people in the media with military and combat experience,” he said.
Pete Hegseth remains in Individual Ready Reserve
Today, Hegseth remains part of the Individual Ready Reserve. He said he is proud of his time in service and the work he’s able to continue to do on behalf of the military community through FOX News. As for what he would advise veterans struggling to find their purpose, he implored them to recognize their worth.
“There is another chapter, and that chapter includes honoring and living up to the legacy of what you did in uniform,” Hegseth said. “The country needs fighters, if you will, metaphorically, here in our country, as much as they needed us overseas, and it’s gonna be vets and it’s gonna be reserve and Guard and retired, active-duty folks, and others who carry that mantle forward.”
He also encourages them to tell their story. On FOX Nation, he hosts “Modern Warriors,” which highlights post-9/11 veterans and their stories. The series also had a special — called “We Were Soldiers” — that honored Vietnam War veterans.
“Thank God for Vietnam vets who made good on their promise to say, ‘Never again will a generation of warriors be treated that way.’ They were the first ones to embrace us when we came home,” Hegseth said.
He turned his work into a collection of inspiring stories from 15 of America’s greatest heroes, called “Modern Warriors: Real Stories from Real Heroes.”It is available for purchase on Amazon and through all major book retailers.
His final words to the newest generation of guardsmen and reservists touch on gratitude.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ve got seven young children under my stead, and I hope any number of them, as many as possible, are willing to make that same decision,” Hegseth said. “It’s selfless service to be able to say you’re willing to write a check in full on behalf of your nation.”