US Defense Secretary Leaves Hospital

pentagon — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is out of the hospital just in time to address allies at a critical meeting focused on more support for Ukraine.

Austin was released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center late Tuesday and resumed his full duties less than two hours later, according to a statement issued by the Pentagon.

The White House, Congress, the deputy secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman were all notified, the statement added.

Austin had been at Walter Reed since Sunday, when he was hospitalized for what the Defense Department described as “an emergent bladder issue.”  

Austin’s doctors said Tuesday that the issue was related to the secretary’s prostate cancer surgery in December but that “it was corrected with nonsurgical procedures” on Monday.

“He remained in good condition throughout,” the doctors said in a statement. “He is anticipated to continue his full recovery.”

The Pentagon statement said the secretary will “recuperate and perform his duties remotely from home for a period before returning to work at the Pentagon later this week.”

“He has full access to the unclassified and classified communications systems necessary to perform his duties,” it added.

The latest health scare forced Austin to cancel plans to fly to Brussels this week for an in-person meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) and a separate meeting of NATO defense ministers.

Wednesday’s meeting on Ukraine will now take place virtually, with Pentagon officials saying Austin expects to play a key role.

The defense secretary “still intends to participate,” said Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh, briefing reporters earlier on Tuesday. “This includes delivering opening remarks.”

The 70-year-old Austin has been hospitalized twice this year following treatment for prostate cancer late last year. In addition to his most recent hospitalization, he was hospitalized starting January 1 and has faced intense criticism for failing to notify the White House, Congress or the public for almost five days.

This time, the Pentagon said, Austin’s aides informed the White House before he left for the hospital Sunday afternoon. Congress and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were also notified of the developments. And Austin temporarily transferred control of the department to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks.    

Despite the hospitalizations, Austin’s doctors have said his cancer prognosis “remains excellent.” 

The White House on Monday voiced confidence in Austin’s ability to lead the Defense Department. 

President Joe Biden is “not at all” concerned about Austin’s hospitalization affecting his leadership, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby told reporters. 

When Austin first returned to work at the Pentagon earlier this month, he apologized for keeping his cancer diagnosis a secret.  

“The news shook me. … Frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private,” Austin 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.  

Austin’s initial 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.   

The meetings of the UDCG and NATO defense ministers come at a critical time. 

Ukraine has been fending off waves of intensified Russian drone and missile attacks despite running low on critical munitions, while the U.S. has not sent any military aid to Ukraine since late December, when funding ran out. 

The U.S. Senate late Monday passed a $95 billion aid package that includes more than $60 billion for Ukraine, but the legislation’s fate in the House of Representatives remains uncertain.

Pentagon officials expect Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General CQ Brown and Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander to join Austin for the UDCG meeting Wednesday.

Wallander will also travel to Brussels to represent the U.S. at the NATO ministerial meeting Thursday, along with the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, Ambassador Julianne Smith. 

Carla Babb contributed to this report.

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