ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now we're going to dig into one chapter from Robert Mueller's history. Before he was special counsel, before he was FBI director, he was a U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam.
GARRETT GRAFF: Vietnam was really the formative experience of Bob Mueller's life. I think it's the prism through which you can view so much of what has happened in his life since then.
SHAPIRO: That's journalist and Mueller biographer Garrett Graff. He wrote the cover story in this month's Wired magazine about Mueller's combat experience in Vietnam. He told me to understand why the wealthy Princeton graduate chose to go to Vietnam, you have to know something about Mueller's classmate David Hackett.
GRAFF: David Hackett was a year ahead of Bob Mueller at Princeton and was a leader on the lacrosse team where Mueller played and then, immediately after college, deployed to Vietnam and led a platoon and ultimately was killed in battle while trying to rescue another isolated ambushed platoon. Mueller had seen Hackett as a real leader on the field in college sports and so had followed Hackett's model of going off to Vietnam even though he didn't have to.
And sort of one of the things that most people don't know is that Mueller actually was not eligible to serve at first. His knees were too banged up. Mueller actually took a year to heal his knee before he was able to sort of reenlist and go off to Officer Candidate School, then Army Ranger School, Army jump school, actually - he became a parachutist as well - and then was finally sent off to a platoon in Vietnam.
SHAPIRO: Explain what it was in this man's upbringing or personality that made him go to a place where he could in all likelihood be killed when he didn't have to.
GRAFF: Mueller had been raised from a very early age with actually a very strong sense of service. His father was a captain of a Navy submarine chaser in World War II. And Mueller talks about sort of what a huge influence his father was in terms of building a strong moral compass, and Mueller was sort of raised in that - those final years of sort of that post-World War II establishment that really saw itself as being called to service.
SHAPIRO: It's December 1968. Mueller has been in Vietnam less than a month, and his platoon comes under heavy fire. What happens?
GRAFF: December 11, 1968, Mueller and his unit and the other companies of 2nd Battalion becomes pinned down atop Mutter's Ridge. And Mueller, according to the men that I interviewed, really rose to the occasion and sort of rallied the unit and helped save them that day. And actually, he went out and rescued two wounded Marines, which earned him the Bronze Star with valor, one of the highest awards that the military gives out.
SHAPIRO: In a later firefight, he was actually shot in the thigh. How did he reflect to you on the fact that he returned from Vietnam intact and so many of the men he served with did not?
GRAFF: That's actually a key part of I think why Mueller has dedicated so much of his life to public service ever since - is that Mueller understood when he got out of combat and ended up back in the United States just how lucky he was. And he has said that sort of every day since then is a blessing.
SHAPIRO: You spent many long hours with Robert Mueller, interviewing him for the biography that you wrote. Can you tell us something specific that he said to you about Vietnam that really stuck with you?
GRAFF: What's sort of interesting about Mueller is that you see in sort of the way that he has lived his life since Vietnam sort of the discipline and sense of mission that the Marines instilled in him. One of the things that he said to me while we were interviewing was that he makes his bed every day. And I laughed at him and said, you know, that's the least surprising thing I've ever heard you tell me.
GRAFF: Of course you make your bed every day. And he said, no, it's an important part of discipline. I've always made my bed, and I've always shaved even in the jungles in Vietnam because when you think something, you do it, and you've put money in the bank in terms of discipline.
SHAPIRO: Garrett Graff, thanks so much for speaking with us.
GRAFF: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: He wrote the cover story in this month's Wired magazine about Robert Mueller's combat experience in Vietnam and joined us from Vermont Public Radio in Colchester. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.