Secretary Has Been at Walter Reed Since January 1st
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was secretly hospitalized on January 1st at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center due to complications stemming from a routine medical procedure. The Pentagon revealed Austin’s hospitalization on January 5th, after keeping it quiet for several days.
According to Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh, Austin “underwent a routine medical procedure requiring post-procedure monitoring. During the course of that monitoring, it was determined that further inpatient observation was warranted.” Singh said that Austin is “fully alert and engaged” with his staff and “deeply invested” in key issues facing the department.
Sources told NBC News that Austin underwent an elective medical procedure shortly before New Year’s Eve. He was admitted to Walter Reed due to secondary issues related to that procedure. Officials maintained that the secretary’s health issue is not an emergency.
Timeline of Events
|December 30, 2023
|Austin undergoes elective medical procedure
|January 1, 2023
|Admitted to Walter Reed for post-surgery complications
|January 5, 2023
|News of hospitalization made public by Pentagon
Walter Reed officials and the Pentagon provided no further details on Austin’s condition. Singh declined to describe the procedure or complications, citing privacy reasons. Sources suggested it was “nothing major to be alarmed about.”
Singh could not confirm when Austin might be discharged but said he is recovering well. There has been no indication he will step down from his position. President Biden has been briefed on the situation.
Mixed Reaction to Delayed Disclosure
The revelation of Austin’s four-day hospital stay sparked some criticism over the lack of transparency. Reporters questioned why the Pentagon concealed the secretary’s admission and only disclosed it under inquiry.
“It took an act of Congress to find out about this,” said one correspondent. Others argued the delay violated past precedent of promptly notifying the public when senior government leaders face health issues.
However, defense officials maintained they followed proper protocols. Singh stated that Austin initially only required post-surgical monitoring which did not necessitate a public statement. Officials made the disclosure once it became clear Austin needed extended hospitalization.
Sources told Military Times the secretary did not invoke executive privilege or attempt to hide his condition. They said Austin himself urged staffers on January 5th to make his hospitalization known.
Secretary Faces Myriad of Global Challenges
Austin’s health crisis comes at a time of tremendous international turbulence, with his leadership vital on several fronts. At year’s end, he visited troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine to boost morale. Austin oversees key strategic initiatives ranging from competition with China and Russia to Middle East conflicts.
On New Year’s Eve, Austin called military commanders overseeing Ukraine support operations – evidence he was attending to duties despite his impending procedure. Colleagues praised Austin’s dedication, with a senior officer saying Austin’s hospital room is “like a second Pentagon office.”
There are no reports that Austin’s temporary absence has impacted military operations or guidance to commanders. But the secretary’s health will remain a priority for senior defense officials in coming days. His swift recovery and return are considered crucial for U.S. national security efforts moving into 2024.
What Happens If Secretary Cannot Resume Duties?
Under federal law, the deputy defense secretary would become the acting secretary if Austin were incapacitated from performing his role. However, there is currently no confirmed deputy secretary, with Lisa Hershman having left the post.
Defense Department Comptroller Michael McCord would be next in line to take over temporary leadership if necessary. But Austin has remained actively involved in key discussions around budget planning and force readiness.
Pentagon officials emphasized Austin is steadily improving and focused on discharging his responsibilities. While his release date is uncertain, he is already sustaining a full workload. Officials voiced confidence Austin will make a full recovery within weeks and seamlessly resume directing the Defense Department.
In the near term, doctors will continue monitoring Austin’s post-surgical progress while military brass keep him updated on critical security issues. The secretary’s active engagement, even from his hospital suite, provides continuity of leadership during this health challenge.
Looking ahead, Austin plans to review options so a confirmed deputy secretary is in place should an emergency absence occur down the line. For now, his recovery remains the central priority so he can get back to the Pentagon’s helm directing national defense policies. Officials are optimistic Austin will make a swift return within days or weeks at most.
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