Austin Apologizes, Says Americans Have Right To Know If Leaders’ Health Challenges May Affect Their Duties


By C. Todd Lopez

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III addressed Thursday journalists at the Pentagon to discuss recent health issues that twice took him away from his official duties, the attacks that occurred in Jordan which resulted in the death of three soldiers, and the ongoing attacks against cargo ships transiting the Red Sea.

Early last month, Pentagon officials revealed Austin had undergone surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in December, to treat prostate cancer. They also revealed that complications related to that surgery again put him in the hospital and took him away from his duties in early January.

In neither instance had the secretary told President Joe Biden about those hospitalizations. Today, Austin said he regretted not having told the president about his condition. 

“We did not handle this right,” he said. “I did not handle this right. I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public. And I take full responsibility. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.” 

Austin said Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks assumed his responsibilities both times he was away. 

“I want to make it very clear that there were no gaps in authorities and no risk to the department’s command and control,” he said. “At every moment, either I or the deputy secretary was in full charge.” 

He said the reason he failed to reveal his medical condition to the president, the rest of the Defense Department, or to the American people was his own sense of personal privacy. 

“I was being treated for prostate cancer,” he said. “The news shook me. And I know that it shakes so many others, especially in the Black community. It was a gut punch. And, frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private. I don’t think it’s news that I’m a pretty private guy. I never like burdening others with my problems.” 

Austin said he now realizes that since he accepted the role of secretary of defense, he no longer is entitled to the degree of privacy he was previously accustomed to. 

“Taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect,” he said. “The American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties, even temporarily. So, a wider circle should have been notified, especially the president.” 

Since his stay in the hospital, Austin said he has met with the president and discussed what happened. 

“I’ve apologized directly to President Biden, and I’ve told him that I’m deeply sorry for not letting him know immediately that I received a heavy diagnosis and was getting treatment,” Austin said. “He has responded with a grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect. And I’m grateful for his full confidence in me.” 

The secretary also said that his failure to notify the American people about his diagnosis, treatment and temporary departure from duty was a missed opportunity to discuss an important health issue. 

“I was diagnosed with a highly treatable form of cancer, a pretty common one,” he said. “One in eight American men will get prostate cancer. One in six Black men will get it. I’m here with a clear message to other men, especially older men: Get screened. Get your regular checkups. Prostate cancer has a glass jaw. If your doctor can spot it, they can treat it and beat it.” 

After it was revealed that Austin had been away from his duties, the Defense Department’s inspector general sent a memorandum announcing a review to examine the roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities and actions related to the secretary of defense’s hospitalization. 

“[The review will] assess whether the DOD’s policies and procedures are sufficient to ensure timely and appropriate notifications and the effective transition of authorities as may be warranted due to health-based or other unavailability of senior leadership,” the Jan. 10 memorandum said. 

In addition to the inspector general’s review, the secretary’s chief of staff directed the DOD’s director of administration and management to conduct a 30-day review of the department’s notification process for assumption of functions and duties of the secretary of defense. 

Three Service Members Killed in Jordan 

Last weekend, three U.S. soldiers were killed in Jordan, and more than 40 other service members were injured following an an attack by an uncrewed aerial system at a military base near the Syrian border. The service members were in Jordan to support Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the mission by U.S. and coalition members to ensure the defeat of ISIS. 

The three soldiers killed were Army Sgt. William Jerome Rivers of Carrollton, Georgia; Army Sgt. Kennedy Ladon Sanders of Waycross, Georgia; and Army Sgt. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett of Savannah, Georgia. They were assigned to the 718th Engineer Company, 926th Engineer Battalion, 926th Engineer Brigade at Fort Moore, Georgia. Sanders and Moffett were posthumously promoted to sergeant by the Army Reserve. 

“The entire department is united in our outrage and sorrow over the death of three U.S. service members,” Austin said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and their loved ones. And we know that this grief will never leave them. And we hope that they know that the department’s love and support will never leave them, either.” 

The secretary said those three soldiers, along with more than 40 others who were injured in the attack, played a vital role in supporting the mission to ensure the lasting defeat of the terrorist group ISIS. 

“They risked their lives and lost their lives to keep their fellow Americans safe from global terrorism,” Austin said. “The president will not tolerate attacks on American troops, and neither will I.” 

The attack in Jordan, Austin said, was perpetrated by an Iran-backed militia, and other Iran-backed militias — including the Houthis — continue to foment turmoil in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist assault on Israel. 

“We will continue to work to avoid a wider conflict in the region,” Austin said. “But we will take all necessary actions to defend the United States, our interests and our people. And we will respond when we choose, where we choose, and how we choose.” 

In the Red Sea, the Iran-backed Houthis have continued assaults on commercial vessels. Austin said those attacks are not just of concern for the U.S., but for the world. 

“The Houthis continue to do some things that are very irresponsible and illegal,” Austin said. “Our goal is to make sure that we … continue to take away capability from the Houthis to do what they’ve been doing. And this is not a, this is not a U.S. issue. This is an international issue … this is about freedom of navigation. There are others in the world that are watching this to see how serious we are about this, and we are serious.”

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