By Roxana Tiron and Daniel Flatley
The U.S. Senate confirmed retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary on Friday, making him the first Black leader of the U.S. military and the second member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet to win approval.
The 93-2 vote came the day after both the House and Senate waived a law barring former service members from leading the Pentagon within seven years of retiring. Austin, 67, who rose through the ranks to command U.S. forces in the Middle East, retired in 2016. Both Alabama senators voted to confirm.
Austin was born in Mobile and is a 1986 alumnus of Auburn University, where he has served as a member of the Board of Trustees since 2017.
“Gen. Austin represents Auburn’s best in leadership, commitment to excellence and service to others,” said Jay Gogue, president of Auburn University. “We know he will serve our nation with distinction and honor just as he has done throughout his career.”
Austin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and holds master’s degrees from Auburn University in education and Webster University in business management. Since his appointment to the Auburn board, Austin has leveraged his leadership and government experience in advancing the university’s research and technology development in fields ranging from advanced manufacturing and canine explosives detection to precision agriculture and sustainable housing.
Austin has served on Auburn’s highest governing board as a lead trustee for the Alumni committee and most recently the Research and Technology (Economic Development) committee. Austin received Auburn’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
After confirmation from the U.S. Senate in 2010, Austin became the Army’s 200th four-star general and sixth Black Army four-star general. He was the first Black general officer to command a U.S. Army Division (10th Mountain Division/CJTF-180) and a Corps (18th Airborne Corps/Multi-National Corps-Iraq) in combat. He was also the first Black general officer to command an entire theater of war (United States Forces-Iraq) and to serve as vice chief of staff, Army. In 2013, he became the first Black commander of U.S. Central Command.
His wife, Charlene, is also a graduate of Auburn University, and they have two sons.
“Mr. Austin will be the first African American to ever helm the Defense Department in its history, a powerful symbol of the diversity and history of America’s armed forces,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Mr. Austin has a storied career in the Army, but those days are behind him. As secretary of defense he promised to empower and lift up his civilian staff, and I believe that he will be an outstanding secretary of defense for everyone at the Pentagon.”
Austin’s confirmation followed Senate approval on Wednesday for Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence. The Senate traditionally has sought to act on national security nominees quickly after a new president takes office to send a message of stability to allies and adversaries. Senate leaders were negotiating to resolve objections to taking up the nomination of Antony Blinken as secretary of state.
At midday Friday, Austin arrived at the Pentagon, where he was scheduled to receive briefings on issues from the coronavirus to China and the Middle East, according to a Defense Department statement. He was scheduled to hold a phone call with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
In his first remarks to the military as secretary, Austin said one of his jobs – along with ensuring U.S. forces have the “tools, technology, weapons and training” they need – is to help the federal government accelerate efforts to get the pandemic under control.
“You have already come to the aid of our nation’s health care professionals,” Austin said. “You can expect that mission to continue. But we must help the federal government move further and faster to eradicate the devastating effects of the coronavirus.”
Before the Senate vote, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Austin’s confirmation “an extraordinary historic moment.
“A significant portion of our military forces today are African American,” Reed said. “Now they can see themselves at the very top of the Department of Defense, which makes real the notion of opportunity, which is the bedrock of this country.”
Austin will lead a military where people of color are 40% of the active-duty force. In addition to overseeing military strategy and weapons spending, the new defense secretary will face festering social policy issues.
These include evidence that some current and former military personnel belong to right-wing extremist groups that participated in the attack on the Capitol; efforts to eliminate symbols of the Confederacy from military bases; and the military’s failure to effectively curb and punish sexual assaults.
First, though, Austin had to win the waiver from the law that’s intended to preserve civilian control of the military.
In 2017, Congress approved a waiver for Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, to serve as former President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary. Lawmakers of both parties said at the time – and have repeated now – that such exemptions should be rare.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor that he supported Austin despite concerns about the waiver issue, calling him a “clear patriot with an impressive career” who is committed to “balance civilian-military relations.”
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services committee on Tuesday, Austin, pledged to respect civilian control of the military.
“I know that being a member of the president’s cabinet – a political appointee – requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform,” Austin told the committee. “So, if confirmed, you can expect me to empower my civilian staff.”
(Auburn University and Alabama NewsCenter contributed to this report.)