Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Jan. 1 hospitalization was due to a urinary tract infection that developed after he underwent prostate cancer treatment on Dec. 22, doctors from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center said in a statement Tuesday.
The infection was cleared as of Tuesday and he is expected to make a full recovery, Dr. John Maddox, Walter Reed’s trauma medicine director, and Dr. Gregory Chesnut, head of prostate cancer research, wrote.
“Secretary Austin continues to recover well and remains in good spirits.” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday during a briefing. “He’s in contact with his senior staff and has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor the [department’s] day to day operations worldwide.”
Austin’s team did not inform the White House or Congress about his condition or hospitalization for several days last week following his New Year’s Day return to Walter Reed.
On Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the White House was not informed that Austin had prostate cancer until earlier in the day and admitted that the lack of information from Austin was “not optimal.”
“The president was informed today about the prostate cancer,” Kirby said Tuesday.
“It is not optimal for a situation like this to go as long as it did without the commander in chief knowing about it, or the national security advisor knowing about it, or, frankly, other leaders at the Department of Defense,” he added. “That’s not the way this is supposed to happen.”
In the same briefing, Kirby said that “we have complete confidence in the secretary.”
Kirby downplayed the undisclosed absence of the military’s top civilian leader for several stretches in recent weeks, noting that other officials were available to the president to consult with regarding recent military actions.
”At no time was the ability for the United States military to defend our national security interest compromised,” he said. “And at no time was the commander-in-chief not always in command and control of our military forces around the world.”
Austin originally spent a night at Walter Reed in December, according to the statement, following a prostatectomy, a procedure to remove part of the prostate.
But more than a week later, he returned via ambulance to Walter Reed, complaining of nausea and pain in his leg, hip and abdominal region.
The urinary traction infection had caused fluid build-up in his abdomen that put pressure on his small intestine, according to the statement. Drains were placed to remove the fluid. He was never under general anesthesia or otherwise unconscious.
“Prostate cancer and the associated procedures are obviously deeply personal,” Ryder said when asked why Austin has been so reluctant to disclose his condition until now.
Ryder said he did not know when Austin could be expected to return to the Pentagon and if there will be any limitations on his travel or other activities.
Austin was diagnosed in early December, according to the statement, based on changes in regular monitoring blood work. Ryder said he did not know whether Austin informed the president of his diagnosis.
The Pentagon didn’t release a public statement on Austin’s hospitalization until Friday evening, a few hours after notifying Congress and a day after the White House was notified, Ryder confirmed.
Ryder said Monday that Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, learned of his condition on Tuesday, but she was home sick with the flu and did not make any official notifications until Thursday.
Ryder has also confirmed that he himself knew about Austin’s condition on Jan. 2 and he apologized Monday for not pushing for an earlier public disclosure.
Magsamen on Monday ordered a review of the communication breakdown around Austin’s hospitalization, including how the deputy defense secretary is notified of transfer of authorities while a defense secretary is incapacitated and an official protocol for notifying the president and Congress.
Military Times reporter Leo Shane contributed to this report.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.