Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed by Senate as first Black Pentagon chief Updated for 2021

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Updated: March 5, 2021

The Senate on Friday confirmed Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense, making him the first Black defense chief in U.S. history. Austin will lead the nation’s 1.3 million active-duty troops.

The Senate voted 93 to 2 to give President Biden his second cabinet member, after Avril Haines was confirmed on Wednesday as the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence.

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Austin will serve as the 28th United States Secretary of Defense.

Austin is a retired Army general who headed military operations in the Middle East under President Barack Obama.

The 67-year old retired general is the only African-American to have headed U.S. Central Command, the marquee combat command, with responsibility for Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria. These are most of the places where the United States is at war, although with reduced military presence.

General Austin retired as a four-star general in 2016 after 41 years in the military.

On December 9, Austin spoke about his background and why he was pleased to return to the Pentagon and serve in the Biden administration.

He said: “Mr. President-Elect, Madam Vice President-elect Harris: thank you for your trust and confidence and for the opportunity to serve as the 28th Secretary of Defense. If confirmed by the United States Senate, it will be my sincere honor and privilege to return to the department and lead our great service members and civilians in accomplishing our mission of ensuring our nation’s security.

“Back in 1877, a young man from the small town of Thomasville, Georgia, Henry Ossian Flipper, became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. 

“After his commissioning, he was assigned to one of the Army’s all-black regiments, and he became the first non-white officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. Fast forward to today, nearly 150 years later, and another native son of Thomasville, Georgia stands before you as the Secretary of Defense-designate. 

“Many people have paved the way for me and countless others over the years, including Henry O. Flipper. And I am supremely grateful to all of them for their courage, determination, and example. They include the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines, and many others. 

“Throughout my career, I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to benefit from the support and mentorship of exceptional leaders, like General Colin Powell, Admiral Mike Mullen, General Johnnie Wilson and my old platoon sergeant when I was a brand-new second lieutenant, Sergeant First Class “Fox” Ballard. As Sir Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 

“I’ve been very fortunate to have the love and support of my family as well, my mother and father — a postal worker who, along with a number of my uncles and other relatives, spent time in the military, and that inspired my own desire to serve. 

“I’ve also enjoyed the strong support of my brother and four older sisters; and, most importantly, my bride Charlene, who I’ve been truly lucky to have by my side all these years, and I am so grateful for her enduring love and support.

“I spent much of my military career tackling tough issues and formidable adversaries in challenging parts of the world. And President-elect Biden, as you mentioned, we’ve worked closely together on tough issues and have gotten to know each other under some intense and high-pressure situations. You can expect, as Secretary of Defense, that I will give you the same direct, unvarnished counsel as I did back then. 

“I understand the important role the department plays in maintaining stability, deterring aggression, and defending and supporting critical alliances around the world, including in the Asia Pacific, in Europe, and around the world. I fervently believe, as you’ve said before, that “America is strongest when it works with its allies.” Over the years, I’ve worked hand-in-hand with our diplomatic colleagues and our partners around the globe, and witnessed firsthand what we’re able to accomplish, together. And, if confirmed, I look forward to resuming this important work.

“My career has taught me something else equally fundamental to who we are as a nation. When I concluded my military service four years ago, I hung up my uniform for the last time and went from being General Lloyd Austin to Lloyd Austin. 

It’s an important distinction, and one that I make with utmost seriousness and sincerity. 

“I come to this role now as a civilian leader — with military experience to be sure — but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military. I recognize that being a member of the president’s cabinet requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in uniform. I intend to keep this at the forefront of my mind, and I look forward to surrounding myself with experienced, capable civilian appointees and career civil servants who will enable healthy civil-military relations grounded in meaningful civilian oversight.

“As Secretary of Defense, my priority will always be the men and women, military and civilian, who make up the department, and their families. I have seen what they are capable of — great Americans like your son, Beau, and our future First Lady Dr. Biden and her tireless work for military families. 

“As you know, Beau was one of the military lawyers on my staff in Iraq. And we stayed in touch and saw each other a few times after he returned home. As you too can attest, Madam Vice President-elect, Beau was a very special person, a true patriot, and a good friend to all who knew him. 

“Over the past four-plus decades, I have witnessed our service members’ and civilians’ selflessness and patriotism, the extraordinary lengths they will go in support of the mission and in support of one another. I could not be more proud of them and their families. And, if confirmed, it will be the honor of my lifetime to lead them with honor and integrity.

“Thank you again, Mr. President-elect and Madam Vice President-elect, for this opportunity and for your trust and confidence in me. 

“May God bless and keep safe all those currently serving in harm’s way. 

“And, may God continue to bless America.” 

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Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba covers the White House, the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Simon can be reached on simonateba@todaynewsafrica.com

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