Pentagon chief in critical care unit, transfers power to deputy

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was admitted into the critical care unit for a bladder issue on Sunday night after transferring his duties to the deputy defense secretary earlier Sunday, Walter Reed Military Medical Center officials announced.

Austin, 70, underwent a series of tests and evaluations Sunday night at Walter Reed after showing symptoms “suggesting an emergent bladder issue,” earlier in the day, the hospital’s doctors said in a statement. He was later admitted into the critical care unit for “supportive care and close monitoring,” doctors added.

The Pentagon announced Austin’s hospitalization earlier on Sunday and confirmed Austin transferred his functions and duties to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks shortly before 5 p.m. Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder initially said Austin would be “retaining” his functions and duties of the office, but noted the deputy secretary was prepared should she need to assume duties.

Walter Reed officials did not have an estimate for how long Austin will remain in the hospital.

The top defense chief was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December, with doctors on Sunday noting the bladder issue is not expected to change his anticipated recovery. Doctors said his cancer prognosis remains “excellent.”

In his initial statement on Sunday afternoon, Ryder confirmed notifications of Austin’s hospitalization were sent to the deputy secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff along with the White House and Congress.

It comes more than a month after Austin had a weeks-long hospitalization in early January for an infection stemming from a Dec. 22 surgery for prostate cancer. His New Year’s hospitalization drew controversy after news broke the White House and Hicks were not made aware of his hospitalization until Jan. 4, days after his Jan. 1 admittance.

Austin spent days in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Walter Reed. Upon release, he carried out his duties from home and returned to the Pentagon on Jan. 29.

Austin also did not reveal his prostate cancer diagnosis until Jan. 9, nearly a month after an early December health screening discovered the cancer. 

The Pentagon chief apologized earlier this month for his failure to notify administration officials and admitted he “did not handle this right.” He maintained he did not direct his staff to keep secret his hospitalization, but acknowledged his failure to notify.

“I want to be crystal clear: We did not handle this right. I did not handle this right. I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis,” Austin said during a Feb. 1 press conference. “I should have also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibility. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.”

The Defense Department’s inspector general launched an investigation into the incident, with the Pentagon carrying out a 30-day internal review of policies and procedures.

The White House changed its policy based on the incident, ordering Cabinet secretaries to notify when they are unable to perform their duties.

Austin will testify on Feb. 29 before the House Armed Services Committee in the wake of mounting scrutiny from House GOP defense hawks.

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