WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Thursday he was “shook” when he learned of his prostate cancer diagnosis late last year, admitting that his “first instinct” was to keep it to himself despite his Cabinet role.
“It was a gut punch,” Austin, 70, told reporters in his first appearance before the media since he was rushed Jan. 1 to Walter Reed National Military Hospital — where he scandalously remained for four days without telling his boss in the White House and his colleagues at the Pentagon.
“Frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private,” he added after admitting that he “did not handle this right.”
“I did not handle this right,” the Pentagon chief said. “I should have told the President about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team, and the American public. I apologize to my teammates, and to the American people.”
Austin was ultimately kept at Walter Reed for two weeks as doctors helped him through complications from the Dec. 22 prostatectomy – which he also kept from the Biden administration.
The secrecy shocked Washington, with Republicans and Democrats in Congress calling for his resignation. While Austin is notoriously private, critics argued he lost some rights to personal secrecy when he took on the nation’s top defense job — a rebuke Austin accepted on Thursday.
“I don’t think it’s news that I’m a pretty private guy. I never like burdening others with my problems. It’s just not my way,” he said. “But I’ve learned from this experience that taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect.”
The “American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties even temporarily,” Austin went on.
After his discharge Jan. 15, Austin worked from his $3.5 million Virginia home – even hosting a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group from a makeshift home office – before returning to the Pentagon this past Monday.
Since then, he has been buzzing around the five-sided building in a golf cart as he continues to suffer lingering leg pain.
Austin has been invited to testify before the House Armed Service Committee about the secrecy scandal on Feb. 14. However, the secretary did not say whether he would do so.