Biden’s Defense Secretary Pick an Accomplished Commander, Devout Catholic
WINDSOR TERRACE — The U.S. Senate has confirmed retired Army general Lloyd Austin to be the first African American secretary of defense.
The Senate voted 93-2 Friday morning, Jan. 22, clearing the way for Austin, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Defense.
Austin, a devout Catholic from South Georgia, has achieved numerous “firsts” in his more than four decades serving his nation as an Army officer. He is, for example, the first African American to command the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) which is how President Biden, then serving as vice president, came to know the general.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense,” Austin said in a White House statement posted on Twitter. “And I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position.
“Let’s get to work.”
But to be considered for the cabinet position, Austin needed a waiver from Congress because he had been retired only four years, and the National Security Act of 1947 requires seven.
On Thursday, the House voted 326-78 to approve the waiver. U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican from Staten Island, voted for it while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents part of Queens, voted against it.
The Senate did likewise, but the vote there was 69-27, with New York’s senators, both Democrats, splitting their votes. Sen. Charles Schumer supported the waiver, but Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand opposed it.
Until this week, many American’s may not have known the name “Gen. Lloyd Austin.”
Then ask if they’ve heard of “the thunder run into Baghdad,” the troop “surge” in Iraq, the troop drawdown in Iraq, and the Obama Administration’s handling of ISIS. Austin. The retired four-star Army general played vital roles in each of those high-profile missions.
Austin has endured lots of adversity in his life — a list that starts with the racial tensions he experienced while growing up in Thomasville, Ga.
Catholic faith steadied and strengthened throughout it all, Austin said in an interview at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), his alma mater. “My faith,” he said, “has been a strong part of my development over the years.”
Chris Barber, permanent deacon at St. Clare’s Parish in Rosedale, Queens, was a noncommissioned officer in 2004 during the invasion of Iraq. Before that, he served in the Navy. While Deacon Barber did not serve in any of Austin’s units, he explained that any general officer has enormous, and sometimes unfathomable, responsibilities over thousands of people.
“An African American general and a Catholic? It’s a big deal for us, yeah,” said Deacon Barber, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. He added that a good general is concerned about every soldier in the command, regardless of their faith, race, or gender.
“He knows that every decision he makes, there are lives involved, especially in combat,” Deacon Barber said. “Not everyone survives. A general knows that and has to live with that.”
Enough Good People
Lloyd J. Austin III has been married to his wife, Charlene, for more than 40 years. He has two stepchildren. The retired general is known to be extremely private and seldom gives interviews. The Tablet was unable to reach him for this article. However, Austin shared his background in a 2017 conversation with the West Point Center for Oral History.
He was born in Mobile, Ala., but his parents and five siblings settled in Thomasville, Ga.
“I went to parochial school,” he said in the interview, “and then we moved to Thomasville, and there was no parochial school. And not only that, there were very few Catholics.
“So I grew up in a small southern town and remained Catholic because my mother was really devout and because of that, I really had friends from all walks of life, and I went to church with a lot of great people. That, I think, served me throughout my future years.”
However, Austin confirmed that this was during the turbulent Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and his family was not sheltered from racism.
“I was one of the first kids to go to the all-white high school,” Austin said. “Those days were pretty ugly days because it was clear that while many in the community and the faculty really embraced this notion, there were a lot of students who didn’t. And some of the faculty permitted some bad behavior.
“By and large, there were enough good people in the environment to set the conditions for the right things to happen. But this was not easy. For the first year in that school, it was a real challenge.”
As the Vietnam War raged, patriotic attitudes prevailed in Thomasville, Austin said.
He recalled his fascination with his father’s World War II experiences, a retired postal worker, who served with the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Philippines. Another influence was an uncle who joined the U.S. Army Special Forces.
“He’d come home wearing a green beret and those airborne wings,” Austin said. “He was just really squared away. He talked to me about what he was doing, the ability to serve your country, and that sort of business. Despite the fact Vietnam was a war raging at the time, it was clear to me that one of the things that I really felt that I needed to do was to find a way to serve in the military.”
As his high school graduation neared, Austin was accepted at West Point and the University of Notre Dame. Joining the Fighting Irish became more appealing.
“Again, here’s a young African American Catholic from South Georgia, and if you’re Catholic, Notre Dame is your university,” Austin said.
Meanwhile, his father noted that even though Notre Dame offered scholarships, it would still cost some money, while West Point would pay him, and he’d have an unusual opportunity to serve his country.
“He said, ‘Which one do you want?’ And I said, ‘That’s easy, Dad, I want to go to Notre Dame,’ ” Austin said with a chuckle. “And he said, ‘OK, let’s try this conversation tomorrow.’ So we know how this story played out.
“When I went to West Point, my goal was to graduate, serve five years in the Army, get out of the Army, and go to law school at Notre Dame or wherever.”
Austin said he was “treated like any other plebe” at the academy, but he thoroughly bonded with other African American cadets.
He graduated in 1975 and steadily rose through the ranks. Austin never got to Notre Dame, but he did earn a master’s degree in counselor education at Auburn University and a master’s of business administration at Webster University.
Austin commanded combat units in various Army divisions, including light infantry (the 10th Mountain) and airborne (the 82nd).
He earned the Army’s Silver Star while leading the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) in the so-called “Thunder Run” to Baghdad in March 2003.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Austin became known as a popular “soldier’s soldier” among the troops and a key supporter of other generals.
“He was an important part of the success of the surge in Iraq,” O’Hanlon recently wrote at brookings.edu. “He succeeded Gen. Ray Odierno as the deputy commander in 2008 — helping Gen. David Petraeus with the massive coordination of Iraqi and American (and some other) troops to key parts of the country.
“The surge, whatever its other effects, was an absolutely stunning military success that gave Iraqis another chance at rebuilding their country.”
By 2010, Austin was in command of all U.S. forces in Iraq and managed the gradual drawdown of troops ordered by President Barack Obama.
Four years later, as CENTCOM commander, Austin carried out Obama’s directives on the Islamic State (ISIS). This final phase of Austin’s career “is more complicated,” according to O’Hanlon.
“As ISIS rose, President Obama infamously called it the ‘JV team’ of international terrorism,” O’Hanlon wrote. “It is possible that Austin went along with this sort of interpretation at first. The initial campaign lacked a certain energy.
“That said, by the time Austin left and certainly by the time Obama himself left office a year later, the campaign to defeat ISIS was coming together.”
Austin left the military in 2016, started a consulting firm, and served on the board of directors for major corporations, including Raytheon Technologies.
Biden said that while he was Obama’s vice president, he got to know and work with Austin, and became very impressed with him.
“Throughout his lifetime of dedicated service — and in the many hours we’ve spent together in the White House Situation Room and with our troops overseas — Gen. Austin has demonstrated exemplary leadership, character, and command,” Biden said last month in announcing his pick for defense secretary.
“He is uniquely qualified to take on the challenges and crises we face in the current moment,” Biden continued, “and I look forward to once again working closely with him as a trusted partner to lead our military with dignity and resolve.”
The waiver granted by Congress Thursday was necessary because the National Security Act of 1947 requires at least seven years of separation to protect the concept that civilians must have ultimate control of the U.S. military.
Only twice has there been a waiver to this rule. The most recent was for James Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general, who became President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary.
But even some Democrats loyal to Biden say that the seven-year provision is so important they would not vote for the waiver. Included is U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a U.S. Army veteran who lost both legs when the Blackhawk helicopter she piloted was shot down over Iraq.
“Gen. Austin is an excellent officer who served honorably and faithfully for more than 40 years,” the senator recently said. “He broke barriers the entire way and commanded troops with integrity and compassion, and he is certainly capable of leading the Department of Defense.
“Yet, I cannot ignore the fact that civilian control of our military is one of the foundational principles of our country — one that I spent 23 years in uniform defending. This principle is bigger than any single individual, and my concerns over this waiver are not related to Gen. Austin’s qualifications.”
Duckworth kept her promise and voted against the waiver on Thursday.
That Little Seed of Faith
Deacon Barber noted that whoever becomes defense secretary will be responsible for the safety of not just everyone in uniform, but also the entire U.S. population.
Still, a military command is good training for that, considering the top brass not only worries about their troops, but also their families back home.
Deacon Barber experienced that while serving as a U.S. Army chaplain’s liaison to Catholic troops from Poland also serving in Iraq. This was added to his regular job as a transportation specialist, driving tractor-trailer rigs all over the war-torn landscape.
“Being the Catholic liaison for my unit continued even after coming home,” he said. “I was speaking to the community and meeting soldier’s families, seeing what they are going through.”
Faith, he reiterated, is a powerful ally.
“Being out there, you have to have a lot of faith, and sometimes you lose your direction,” the deacon said. “But I would say any Catholic or Christian who joined the military, no matter their faith, it always comes back to them.
“That little seed of faith always comes back.”