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US Defense Secretary Austin cancels NATO meetings after hospitalization

  • By Sam Cabral
  • BBC News, Washington

Image source, Getty Images

Legend,

Secretary Austin’s duties have currently been transferred to his deputy

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has canceled his trip to NATO headquarters after being admitted to hospital for the third time in as many months.

Mr. Austin, 70, is in an intensive care unit at a Washington, DC, area hospital. The Pentagon said it was facing an “emerging bladder problem.”

In an update, the Pentagon said it anticipated Mr. Austin would be able to return to duty by Tuesday.

His duties have since been transferred to his deputy.

“An extended hospital stay is not anticipated,” according to a statement from Walter Reed Military Medical Center officials released Monday by the Pentagon. “We anticipate that the Secretary will be able to return to normal duties tomorrow.”

The statement said Mr. Austin was in the hospital for non-surgical procedures under general anesthesia to resolve a bladder problem. He is expected to remain in Walter Reed’s intensive care unit for the duration of his stay, the Pentagon said, but did not specify how long that stay would last.

Mr. Austin has faced intense scrutiny due to the secrecy of his previous hospital admissions.

He had not disclosed his prostate cancer diagnosis in December or his return to the hospital in January, either publicly or to key figures in the U.S. chain of command.

“Mr. Austin’s current bladder problem is not expected to alter his expected full recovery. His cancer prognosis remains excellent,” said Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman.

The defense secretary was scheduled to lead a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday. This would be his first trip abroad since his first admission to hospital.

He was also scheduled to attend a meeting of NATO defense ministers on Thursday chaired by NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.

Mr. Austin attended the last CGUD meeting virtually from home on January 23.

His office told the BBC that Mr Austin plans to continue these final scheduled meetings virtually.

On Sunday afternoon, the Pentagon released a statement saying Mr. Austin had been taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland for treatment, adding that the White House and senior defense officials had been informed.

Later in the afternoon, the Pentagon issued a second statement saying that Mr. Austin had “transferred the functions and duties of the office” to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks.

Later Sunday, the hospital provided an update saying the secretary had been admitted to the intensive care unit “for supportive care and close monitoring.”

Officials have not yet said how long the first black U.S. defense secretary will remain in the hospital or when he might return to duty.

The bladder problem is not expected to change Mr. Austin’s “full recovery” from cancer, his doctors said.

Late last year, Mr Austin underwent surgery as part of his cancer treatment.

He was readmitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day with severe pain in his leg, hip and abdomen due to complications from the procedure. An evaluation revealed a urinary tract infection and he remained in the hospital for more than two weeks.

Top defense officials and the Biden administration did not know that Mr. Austin was seriously ill until three days after his readmission in January.

The Secretary of Defense sits just below the President in the U.S. military’s chain of command and is considered one of the most important members of the cabinet.

The incident fueled concerns about transparency and safety and prompted three separate investigations into Mr. Austin’s handling of his illness and hospital stays. Some prominent Republicans have called for him to be removed from office.

At a news conference earlier this month, Mr. Austin said he was “deeply sorry” for not providing proper notice and that he had personally apologized to President Joe Biden.

The defense secretary is expected to testify at the end of the month about his failure to brief government leaders.

Video caption,

Watch: ‘I Didn’t Handle This Well,’ Lloyd Austin Apologizes for Previous Hospital Stay in Early February

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