Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin has made history after being confirmed on Friday as the first Black man to serve as defense secretary.
Austin’s confirmation by the Senate comes just one day after Congress granted him a waiver that allows him to lead the Defense Department even though he has been retired for less than the seven years required by law.
Only two other defense secretaries have been granted such a waiver: Retired General of the Army George Marshall in 1950 and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis in 2017.
Initially, some lawmakers expressed concern about having to grant a second waiver within four years so that a recently retired general could become defense secretary, but most of those objections appear to have evaporated in recent weeks.
Austin oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and went on to lead U.S. Central Command. He retired from the Army in 2016 after 41 years of service.
He is also originally from Thomasville Georgia, which happens to be the same hometown of Henry Ossian Flipper, the first Black man to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1877.
When President Joe Biden announced in December that he would nominate Austin to be his defense secretary, Biden noted that his son Beau served under the general while deployed to Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard. The younger Biden died of cancer in 2015.
“As a leader, Gen. Austin has always followed the advice given to him by his first platoon sergeant,” Biden said. “Here is what his platoon sergeant told him: ‘If you focus on your people, take care of them, get out in front and lead them, they’ll refuse to let you fail.’”
Austin is taking the helm at the Defense Department as the military is just beginning to reckon with the problem of white supremacist and other extremists within the ranks. The mob that attacked Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 included many rioters connected to the military.
Another pressing issue is the military’s overall ambivalence toward sexual harassment and sexual assault, which became national news following the murder of Amy Spc. Vanessa Guillén in April. A subsequent independent review revealed widespread failure of leadership at Fort Hood in taking care of their soldiers.
During his Jan. 19 Senate confirmation hearing, Austin vowed to tackle both scourges of extremism and sexual assault within the military.
“If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault; and to rid our ranks of racists and extremists; and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” Austin told lawmakers. “The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”