Defense Secretary Cancels Travel Plans After Hospitalization

washington — The Pentagon has canceled plans for U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to travel to Brussels for key meetings on Ukraine and for talks with NATO allies, just a day after he was hospitalized again for complications after prostate cancer surgery.

A U.S. defense official tells VOA that the meetings on Ukraine through the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, set for Wednesday, will now be held virtually.

There is no word yet on whether Austin will participate in that meeting, or on how the Defense Department will handle a NATO defense ministers meeting scheduled for Thursday.

Monday’s decision to cancel the trip comes less than 24 hours after defense officials announced Austin was back in the hospital with what the Pentagon described as “an emergent bladder issue.”

Officials at Walter Reed Military Medical Center said Sunday that Austin was admitted to the hospital’s critical care unit “for supportive care and close monitoring” after undergoing tests. 

“At this time, it is not clear how long Secretary Austin will remain hospitalized,” the officials said in a statement. “The current bladder issue is not expected to change his anticipated full recovery. His cancer prognosis remains excellent.” 

Due to the most recent hospitalization, Austin transferred control of the department to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks.  

Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder said the White House, Congress and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been notified of the developments.  

Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer late last year and has been criticized for keeping secret his diagnosis, surgery and subsequent hospitalization due to complications from the procedure.  

Following his return to the Pentagon, the 70-year-old Austin apologized for his handling of the situation.

“The news shook me. … Frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private,” he told reporters.  “I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.”  

“We did not handle this right. And I did not handle this right. I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibility,” he added.

Upon being diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier in December, he went to a hospital for a surgical procedure on December 22. 

Austin was readmitted January 1, and spent two more weeks in the hospital after experiencing extreme pain and being admitted to the intensive care unit. 

President Joe Biden and other key leaders were only informed of Austin’s diagnosis more than a week after he’d been readmitted to the hospital.  

Austin’s lack of disclosure prompted changes in federal guidelines and triggered an internal Pentagon review and an inspector general review into his department’s notification procedures.   

Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.

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