Biden selects retired general Lloyd Austin as Defense Secretary

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden will nominate retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon, according to the Associated Press.

Austin, who would be the first Black Defense Secretary, rose to the military’s loftiest ranks and kept one of its lowest profiles.

He was the Army’s vice chief of staff and also led the military’s most consequential command, Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Austin prefers to work behind the scenes, building by consensus and leading by example.

“He won’t grandstand the president,” said retired two-star Army general Dana Pittard who served with Austin in the early stages of the fight against the Islamic State. “He’s not a guy who likes the limelight. He’s a team player.”

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The military has struggled to diversify its senior military ranks. Austin is one of a relatively few Black Army officers who have commanded combat units, which is the principal route to the highest commands in the military. Earlier this year, Air Force Gen. Charles Brown, a fighter pilot, became the first Black officer to lead a military service. 

Austin, like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who also led Central Command, will need a waiver from Congress to win confirmation. The law requires that troops be retired for seven years before taking the post. That was a minor issue for Mattis, a retired Marine general, who had bipartisan support.

Austin is a soldier’s soldier, having commanded infantry units after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He rose to senior commands with primary ground-fighting units of the 3rd Infantry Division and 10th Mountain Division as they fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a decorated combat veteran, having been awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor.

By 2008, Austin commanded allied forces in Iraq and eventually oversaw the withdrawal of forces there at the end of 2011. He was also the Army’s No. 2 officer, the vice chief of staff.

Leading Centcom from 2013 to 2016 placed him at the center of combat against the Islamic State, which burst across Iraq and Syria, brutally subdued local populations and controlled expansive territory in both countries.

Pittard, co-author of Hunting the Caliphate, led the initial fight against ISIS in Iraq in 2014. Pittard recalled that Austin helped convince Iraqi and Kurdish forces, known for their mutual suspicion, to fight together to retake a key dam at Mosul, in northern Iraq.

“He worked his magic,” Pittard said. “He has gravitas and commands respect. He served as a role model for so many of us. All officers looked up to him.”

Retired Army general Peter Chiarelli, another combat veteran and former vice chief of staff of the Army, lauded the choice of Austin as Defense Secretary.

“Lloyd is a wonderful choice,” said Chiarelli, who served as the top military adviser to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Besides being an amazing Secretary of Defense he will continue to be a role model for generations of minority service members who have waited too long for a Black American to lead the Pentagon.”

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