Lloyd J. Austin III

Lloyd James Austin III (1953- ), a native of Mobile, Mobile County, is the first Black citizen to be named U.S. Secretary of Defense. The retired four-star general was nominated for the post by the incoming presidential administration of Joseph R. Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in January 2021. He previously served in many roles in the U.S. Army, rising steadily through the ranks until his retirement from active service in 2016; he then joined several corporate boards.

Lloyd J. Austin III Austin was born August 8, 1953, in Mobile to Lloyd James Austin Jr., a postal worker, and Aletia Taylor Austin; he is the fifth of six children. His mother was a Mobile native and he attended parochial school there for a time. The family relocated to Thomasville, Georgia, his father’s hometown, after his father retired from the U.S. Post Office for health reasons. Austin graduated from predominantly white Thomasville High School, where he played basketball and excelled academically. His mother was actively involved in and worked for the Catholic Church there, and Austin was also an active member. He was offered a scholarship to the Catholic University of Notre Dame, which he strongly considered, among other schools. But he ultimately chose to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, on the advice of his father, who stressed the free tuition and the family legacy of his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Philippines during World War II. He was also inspired by an uncle who served during the Vietnam conflict. Austin participated in rugby and track, graduating from the academy in June 1975 with a bachelor of science degree. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, entered the infantry, and was sent to West Germany. His father died the following year. Austin has said that he originally planned on being in the military for five years then going to law school.

Austin married Charlene Denise Banner Austin, a native of Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s. He has two stepchildren. He graduated from Auburn University, in Auburn, Lee County, in 1986 with a master of science degree in counselor education; his wife also attended Auburn at the same time, earning a master of education degree in guidance and counseling. She has been actively involved in school and employment counseling and counseling military families. Austin earned a master of business administration in business management from Webster University in 1989. In addition, Austin is a graduate of the Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, the Army Command and General Staff College, and the Army War College. He was the first Black Operations Officer for the renowned 82nd Airborne Division, the first Black commander of an infantry division, the 3rd, in combat, and the first Black commander of an Army corps in combat.

Lloyd J. Austin III Swearing In During his 41-year career in the military, in addition to Germany, Austin had tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United States, at West Point, Fort Drum in New York, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Stewart in Georgia, MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and the Pentagon. Notably, Austin was the assistant division commander for maneuver for the 3rd Infantry Division, which led the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Under his leadership, the division captured the logistically important Baghdad International Airport and seized the capitol city. From September 2003 to August 2005 during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, he served as the commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division and commanded Combined Joint Task Force-180. He returned to Iraq in September 2010 as commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, overseeing coalition forces and Operation New Dawn, the withdrawal of U.S. forces that was completed in December 2011. He later served a stint as vice chief of staff of the Army.

While heading up U.S. Central Command from March 2013 to March 2016, Austin oversaw military strategy and joint operations throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia. He also served as the Combined Forces Commander, overseeing the military campaign to defeat the terrorist organization ISIL in Iraq and Syria. This service, however, came under congressional scrutiny in 2015 for training very few Syrians in an effort that was earmarked $500 million to train as many as 5,000 Syrian soldiers. It was part of the effort under Pres. Barack Obama to use local ground forces instead of U.S. personnel in the regional fight against terrorism. He retired on April 5, 2016.

Over the course of his career, Austin was awarded numerous decorations for exceptional service. Among the most notable are the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Distinguished Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Silver Star, for bravery in combat. After his retirement, Austin joined several corporate boards, including Raytheon, a contractor for the military, steel producer Nucor, and healthcare company Tenet. He was also was named to the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation and the Auburn University Board of Trustees and formed a consultancy business in McLean, Virginia, where he resides.

Austin was nominated for Secretary of Defense by President-elect Joseph R. Biden in December 2020. Austin and Biden had known each other for years through their official positions in the Obama Administration, when Biden served as vice president and Iraq and the Middle East was a focus of U.S foreign policy. In addition, Austin also worked with the president’s late son Beau Biden, who served on Austin’s staff in Iraq; the pair regularly attended Catholic Mass together as well. The nomination received some skepticism from lawmakers, who hoped Biden would choose the first woman to the position and because he had not been retired from the military for seven years as required by law. For this, Austin was granted a waiver from Congress to serve as secretary. Other lawmakers felt it was important for the military, with its high percentage of people of color, to be commanded by an African American. The fact that Austin grew up in the segregated South was also significant. He was confirmed by the Senate on January 22, 2021 and administratively sworn into office that day. On January 25, Austin was “ceremonially” sworn into office at the White House by Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to hold that office. One of his first tasks was to implement the administration policy of reopening service in the military to transgender people, who had been banned by the previous administration of Pres. Donald Trump.

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