US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin deviated from his prepared remarks while addressing funding for Ukraine, skipping over an update on his health in his first public appearance since his hospitalization.
Austin spoke at a virtual meeting before the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on Tuesday, after being released from the hospital last week following complications from prostate cancer treatment.
Reporters noticed in the prepared remarks that the secretary was expected to tell the audience at the beginning of his speech, “As you can tell, I’m joining from home today. I’m feeling good and looking forward to being back at the Pentagon very soon. And I’m grateful for all of your warm wishes.”
However, Austin skipped over the opening remarks related to his health and went straight into the rest of the script. It’s unclear why the update was cut out or if Austin returned to the Pentagon earlier than expected. Newsweek reached out to the Department of Defense via email for comment.
Austin did not address his recent hospitalization at all on Tuesday. The 70-year-old defense secretary has been criticized in recent weeks over the hospital visit, which he failed to disclose to the White House, Congress and the media.
He was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on December 22 for surgery and developed an infection a week later. He was hospitalized on January 1, which was not disclosed to President Joe Biden and senior administrators until January 4. Austin did not disclose his cancer diagnosis until January 9. He was released from the hospital on January 15.
His doctors said that he “progressed well throughout his stay and his strength is rebounding” and that Austin would work from home as he recovers. The secretary himself addressed the matter in a January 15 statement, saying that “as I continue to recuperate and perform my duties from home, I’m eager to fully recover and return as quickly as possible to the Pentagon.”
Austin has said that he takes “full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure” and vowed to “do better” in the future.
His failure to notify lawmakers has prompted a probe by the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee, which is seeking answers about the notification process. The Pentagon inspector general said he is carrying out his own review of what happened.
Austin began his remarks on Tuesday by saying, “Thanks for working across the time zones to join us for the 18th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.”
Speaking from a white room that featured a Defense Department seal behind him, he went on: “We’re eager to enter this new year with new energy. And we’re all here to reaffirm our support for a free, secure and sovereign Ukraine and to ensure that we continue to get Ukraine the capabilities that it needs, for the winter and beyond.”
Austin’s comments come as the U.S. waits for Congress to pass a budget that could open the door for enough Republican votes to approve more wartime aid for Ukraine.
The Pentagon’s last security assistance for Ukraine was announced late last month, a $250 million package that included “lifesaving air defense munitions, air defense system components, ammunition for HIMARS, anti-armor munitions, 155-millimeter and 105-millimeter artillery ammunition and medical equipment,” Austin said. (HIMARS refers to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System.)
“I urge this group to dig deep to provide Ukraine with more lifesaving, ground-based air defense systems and interceptors,” he said. (Newsweek)