US defense chief makes first appearance since secret hospitalization

By AFP   January 23, 2024 | 07:09 pm PT
US defense chief makes first appearance since secret hospitalization
In this Department of Defense video, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin provides opening remarks at the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024 from his home in Great Falls, Virginia. Photo handed out via AP.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday made his first appearance since being hospitalized for complications from cancer treatment -- a stay he concealed from both the White House and Congress for several days.

Austin, who was admitted to Walter Reed on January 1 and spent two weeks in the military hospital, spoke via videolink from his residence at the opening of a meeting on aid for Ukraine's fight against Russian forces.

"The security of the entire international community is on the line in Ukraine's fight. I am more determined than ever to work with our allies and partners to support Ukraine and to get the job done," Austin said in front of a Defense Department seal and small American and Ukrainian flags.

He highlighted a $250 million military assistance package that Washington announced last month, but did not detail any new American aid, with funding having dried up and Republicans refusing to authorize more until President Joe Biden bows to their demands for measures to curb migration over the Mexican border.

Austin's prepared comments -- which were posted on the Defense Department's website -- included a reference to his health: "As you can tell, I'm joining from home today. I'm feeling good and looking forward to being back at the Pentagon very soon."

'Recovering well'

But he skipped over that section in the remarks he delivered, making no mention of his medical situation.

Asked why, Pentagon spokesman Major General Pat Ryder said it was Austin's "prerogative on any remarks that he gives to amend those in delivery."

"The secretary continues to recuperate from home," where he is undergoing physical therapy and is "recovering well," Ryder said.

Austin, a 70-year-old career soldier, underwent minor surgery to treat prostate cancer on December 22, returning home the following day, but was readmitted less than two weeks later for complications including nausea and severe pain.

The White House was not informed about Austin's hospitalization until January 4, while Congress was not told until the following day, and Biden did not learn of the cancer diagnosis until January 9.

In response, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients ordered an urgent review of the rules for when senior US officials are incapacitated.

The secretary's undisclosed hospitalization left a key national security official unaccounted for when Washington's forces are frequently under fire in Iraq and Syria, and Yemen's Huthi rebels are attacking international shipping in the Red Sea.

Republican lawmakers have called for Austin to be sacked, but Biden, while lamenting Austin's lapse in judgment, has said he remains confident in his defense secretary.

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