WASHINGTON -- Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III retired, April 5, after 41 years of service to the nation during a Special Retirement Review ceremony in Conmy Hall on the Fort Myer portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
In light of unseasonably frigid weather, family, friends and peers packed into the building to witness the last day in uniform for a man who Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called "one of America's greatest Soldiers."
Austin, a Georgia native and 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, was one of the first military leaders to deploy into Iraq in 2003, leading the forward headquarters of 3rd Infantry Division, during the campaign to take Baghdad. He commanded forces in Iraq from September 2010 through the completion of Operation New Dawn in December 2011.
Most recently, Austin served as commander of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to March 30, 2016, overseeing military operations in the Middle East and Central and South Asia. He was the first African-American officer to command an Army division and corps in combat and the first African-American leader of U.S. Central Command. Austin has passed the U.S. Central Command flag to Gen. Joseph L. Votel.
During opening remarks, Milley praised the years of service and work that Austin gave to his nation.
"Today, Lloyd Austin ends his active duty military career as a Soldier," Milley said. "Gen. Lloyd Austin, in my view…defines what it means to be a leader. He's fought bravely, he's led fearlessly, he's dedicated himself to the welfare of Soldiers and their families, and he's sacrificed selflessly for our country."
Milley, who first met Austin when Austin was a lieutenant colonel in the 10th Mountain Division over 20 years ago, also stressed the profound effect Austin had as a leader, especially on other leaders who have served with him.
"All of us consider him a national treasure," Milley said. "He was literally, not only to me but to so many others, a big brother, a coach, a mentor, a confidant, a guardian angel and a friend. In so many ways, Lloyd Austin raised an entire generation of generals and flag officers."
Milley also thanked Austin's family, especially his wife, Charlene, noting that the Austins will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in less than 90 days.
"Charlene has been a great wife and a supportive Army spouse," Milley said. "She has been a leader in our community for over three decades."
Austin is a "Soldier's Soldier," according to Milley, exhibiting deep loyalty and humility.
"He is one of those rare officers who not only has a deep understanding and practical experience of tactics and operations, but he has demonstrated over and over again that he has equal skill at the strategic level," Milley said.
Although 41 years in uniform is a massive accomplishment, Austin said an Army career wasn't always the plan.
"I actually planned to stay in the Army for just five years, then get out and go to law school," Austin told the crowd during his address. "However, I quickly learned that I love Soldiers and I love being around Soldiers and I love being part of a winning team."
And that team wins and is made great on the backs of the men and women who serve in uniform, Austin said.
"This business is all about people," he said. "We don't win our nation's wars simply because we have the most technologically-advanced military in the world, and we do. We win wars because we have the very best people serving in our ranks."
Austin stressed the importance of noncommissioned officers and squad leaders, and their ability to inspire their troops. He recounted the story of a young Soldier who rushed an enemy position to eliminate a threat and allow his fellow Soldiers to advance.
"There is no other profession on earth where a 19-year-old kid will get up and run towards an enemy position to save his buddies," Austin said. "And that young Soldier did so because he trusted his squad leader."
Austin also thanked his wife and family, calling Charlene his "rock."
"This ceremony is as much about you as it is about me," he told her. "I'm looking forward to the many great adventures that lie ahead of us."
Finally, Austin took a moment to speak about the future of the military.
"I am filled with optimism because I recognize that today's generation of leaders is even better than my generation," he said. "They will confront any challenge, and they will refuse to fail. We must not fail them…We have the most powerful and capable military on earth. We must ensure that we continue to invest in that critical capability despite the many competing priorities."
In a statement from the White House, President Barack Obama congratulated Austin on his retirement and thanked him for his many years of service.
"General Austin's character and competence exemplify what America demands of its military leaders," Obama said in the statement. "Over the last three years…Austin has overseen military operations in one of the most demanding regions of the world, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and our broader counter-ISIL campaign. These are among his many accomplishments over a storied military career."
Pentagram Staff Writer Guv Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.