Tampa Bay public officials commend Biden’s defense secretary nominee

Gen. Lloyd Austin served as commander of U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, from 2013 to 2016.
Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III,  former commander of U.S. Central Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa is President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Defense.  [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III, former commander of U.S. Central Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa is President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Defense. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Dec. 11, 2020|Updated Dec. 12, 2020

The quiet professional. An extraordinary patriot. The right man for the job.

That’s how local public officials past and present recall retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III from his days in Tampa Bay. He served as commander of the U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, from 2013 to 2016, when he retired after a 41-year military career.

Now President-elect Joe Biden’s pick as the next secretary of defense, Austin left a lasting impression among officials with whom he interacted in a professional and personal capacity.

“This is a man, unlike others, who is not self-aggrandizing, who is not full of himself, who is all about the soldiers and the family members of his units,” said Greg Holder, a Hillsborough County circuit judge. “And that carried forward, even here at CentCom.”

Holder said he knew Austin as a “very quiet, unassuming young man” from his days at the U.S. Military Academy, also known as West Point, from which they both graduated in 1975.

Austin had intended to serve in the Army for five years before going to law school to become a lawyer, according to a Central Command report. Instead, during his military career, he led every formation from a platoon to one of the Department of Defense’s top joint military commands.

He was commander in Baghdad of the Multinational Corps-Iraq in 2008 and returned to lead U.S. troops from 2010 through 2011. He also oversaw the pull-out of troops and equipment from Iraq in December 2011, a decision by President Barack Obama that Austin disagreed with, according to a recent Associated Press report.

In 2016, Austin left Central Command, which oversees military operations in a 20-nation swath of territory from Egypt to Kazakhstan, with “the momentum of the campaign in Iraq and Syria clearly on the side of the 66-nation counter-ISIL coalition,” according to a Central Command report.

He served in 2012 as the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army and later became the first Black commander of Central Command. If confirmed, he would be the first Black secretary of defense.

“I think the history-making nature of this appointment, combined with his 41-year career in the military, makes him the perfect choice for this,” said Bob Buckhorn, who was Tampa mayor when Austin led Central Command.

Austin had dinner at Buckhorn’s house during that time, and the two kept in touch after Austin’s retirement, Buckhorn said.

“He looks out for his soldiers, which first and foremost is the job of secretary of defense,” Buckhorn added.

Beyond his military service and commitment to military families and veterans, Austin also is remembered as a member of the Tampa Bay community.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, remembers standing with Austin to welcome Obama to MacDill in 2014, but one of her favorite interactions was finding him shopping for Christmas lights in Home Depot a few holiday seasons ago.

“A trip, he advised in his deep baritone voice, that was ordered by his wife, Charlene, to decorate their MacDill home,” Castor said in a statement.

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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman recalls hosting Austin at the Firestone Grand Prix and speaking with him regularly about the Central Command’s commitment to St. Pete and the Tampa Bay region, he said in a statement.

“I strongly urge the United States Senate to confirm him so that he may lead the Department of Defense with the same care and dedication he showed our community when he was here,” Kriseman added.

Judge Holder recalls Austin and his wife attending mass at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa, and how one evening, while commander at Central Command, Austin spoke to a men’s ministry group at the church.

“I was just so impressed with the fact that, despite his busy schedule, despite the War on Terror, he thought it was important enough to take the time to come and talk about his faith,” Holder said.

Austin has been retired from military service for four years, instead of the seven required, so he will need a Congressional waiver before serving as secretary of defense. This has been granted twice, most recently to President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief, retired Gen. James Mattis.

Yet local officials still call for Austin’s confirmation, and Holder said that the importance of civilian control of the military was ingrained into Austin back at West Point.

“This man’s entire education, experience and training have emphasized civilian control of the military,” he said.