Exclusive—Rep. Matt Gaetz: Lloyd Austin Must Face Consequences for His Failure and Hypocrisy

U.S. House Armed Services Committee

During this week’s House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing on Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s failure to notify President Biden of his recent hospitalization, he tried asking for grace and forgiveness while justifying his undisclosed medical leave for cancer treatment as a personal health dilemma.

However, during the same hearing, he refused to commit to re-recruit and restore the full rank and back pay for the 8,600 service members who were forced out of the military due to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

What Austin’s narrative fails to acknowledge is that his significant breach of protocol and regulations, such as the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Uniform Code of Military Justice, regarding unauthorized absences known as going “AWOL”, and statutes mandating the reporting of vacancies and duty performance. Austin’s actions, coupled with Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks’ refusal to return to the continental United States to perform the duties of secretary, left the United States’ defense leadership effectively rudderless. This incident underscores a concerning lack of accountability at the apex of our defense establishment, raising serious questions about the implications of such lapses on national security.

Some people may be tempted to give Austin the grace he seeks given the delicate nature of his medical condition. But let’s not forget his and his department’s callous and destructive behavior toward the roughly 8,600 service members who also had to make a deeply personal medical: the refusal of the COVID-19 vaccine. These 8,600 service members were unceremoniously removed from the Armed Forces due to this Secretary of Defense. They received, in some cases, general discharges (or worse), preventing them from receiving the medical and educational benefits their service deserves—which, in many such cases, would be transferred to their children for their betterment.

I’ve given Austin numerous opportunities to recant and correct the DoD’s ill-conceived and illegal vaccine mandate. On one instance during the HASC FY2024 budget request hearing in March 2023, I asked Austin why he won’t pursue and solicit the reenlistment of the service members removed for refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate. He simply replied: “It’s incumbent upon the individual [to get back into the Armed Forces].”

Then, during this week’s hearing, when I asked if he would grant the same grace he is asking for, and re-recruit and restore the full rank and back pay for those who were vax-mandated out of the military, he replied: “No, I won’t.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on February 29, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

It’s now time for the secretary to face consequences and accountability for his most recent failure: Austin should not be above the standards he holds the department he leads to. For perspective, service members under Austin’s command are subject to a whole host of penalties for going AWOL. For such an offense, a service member can be fined and risk his or her salary being forfeited. The service member can even be imprisoned for going absent without notifying his or her chain of command.

There is a trail of failure and destruction behind Austin like a shadow on a sunny day. Unfortunately, Austin will likely escape accountability, as all senior officers routinely do. There are not many more positions for him to fail up into, and this will likely end with him becoming the senior advisor or Chairman to some defense contractor or lobbying firm.

Ultimately, however, if Austin is to receive the grace he sought this week, it most certainly should also be extended to the 8,600 service members who were discharged from the military for making a personal medical decision. That is why I’m leading an effort as a part of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to take $200 million that would otherwise fund the defense of other nations and repurpose them to fund the reinstatement, back pay, and hardship bonuses of service members kicked out for vaccine refusal.

It’s long past time for Congress to grant these service members the grace Austin seeks for himself but hypocritically refuses to extend to others.

Rep. Matt Gaetz represents Florida’s First Congressional District.


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