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Lloyd Austin returns to Pentagon four weeks after secret hospitalization

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, listens during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Lloyd Austin,Jens Stoltenberg

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was back in the office Monday, exactly four weeks after he was rushed to the hospital with complications from prostate cancer surgery that he kept from his colleagues – and President Biden – for days.

The Defense Department released a short statement announcing Austin’s return, noting the 70-year-old had been working from home since his release from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 15.

Austin’s return to the five-sided building coincided with a visit to the Pentagon by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who met with Austin and other senior defense officials to discuss the alliance’s ongoing support to Ukraine and other global security matters.

“At this important time, I’m glad to be back at the Pentagon,” Austin said at the opening of his meeting with Stoltenberg Monday. “I feel good and am recovering well, but I’m still recovering.”

On the evening of New Year’s Day, Austin was taken by ambulance from his Virginia home in severe pain from a urinary tract infection following his Dec. 22 prostatectomy.

Secrecy appeared to be Austin’s top priority, with an aide asking 911 operators to have the ambulance arrive without running its lights or sirens.

“We’re trying to remain a little subtle,” the aide added in the call.

Austin quietly transferred his authority to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Jan. 2 — without telling her or any of his other Pentagon colleagues of the reason behind it – but failed to tell the White House that he had done so. That didn’t happen until Jan. 4, when Biden was notified of Austin’s hospitalization.

While the Pentagon quietly revealed Austin’s hospitalization to the public in a Friday news dump the following day, the full story didn’t come out until Jan. 9, when Austin’s Walter Reed doctors released a statement revealing his prostate cancer diagnosis and earlier surgery – which was also news to both the Pentagon and the White House.

Austin’s secrecy frustrated many in Washington, prompting both Republican and Democrat lawmakers to call for his resignation. Biden has said he intends to keep Austin in his role despite the controversy.

The House Armed Services Committee has requested Austin give testimony on the ordeal during a hearing on Feb. 14.

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