He may be President Obama's newly-installed Defense secretary, but to the troops Chuck Hagel makes time to talk shop with, he's the trusted sergeant they can confide in, just like when he served as an Army sarge in Vietnam.

It's a role Hagel relishes. While most of his time is dedicated to managing the drawdown in Afghanistan and preparing for the first time in a decade when the nation won't be engaged in a major war, associates said he is devoted to enlisted members and their morale.

Just last week, for example, he sat down with a group of junior enlisted service members for lunch, something he has committed to do every month. The gatherings are a rare opportunity for young men and women in uniform to talk directly and privately with the boss. No staff are allowed in the room -- it's just the troops and their "SecDef," who was once a junior enlisted soldier himself.

At last week's lunch with six men and six women from across the services, a senior Pentagon official told Secrets, the topics included the future of the military, sexual assault, pay and benefits. One service member even told Hagel about her experience as a lesbian in the military raising a young child with her wife.

But during the lunch, they seemed a bit too nervous to dig in so Hagel politely "ordered" them to make sure their lunch didn't go to waste, said an official.

"The secretary greatly values these opportunities to sit down on a regular basis with men and women who represent every facet of military life," said the official.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, right, talks with Army Sgt. Virginia Leal, left, about the parachutes she is wearing at the Global Response Force Airborne School at Fort Bragg, N.C., on July 15, 2013. Hagel is visiting the Army post to talk with senior leaders, soldiers and civilian employees. DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett.
Hagel, a rare Republican in Obama's inner-circle, has a long record of looking out for enlisted troops. Most notably, he quit the Veterans Administration years ago after the agency's director suggested Agent Orange, the Vietnam-era defoliant that has had a devastating impact on some of the troops exposed to it, shrugged off the effects of the chemical.

Paul Bedard, The Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at pbedard@washingtonexaminer.com.