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Gen. Lloyd Austin `86 stands out as one of 'best of the best'

A number of Americans received their first introduction to Gen. Lloyd Austin III from the pages of USA Today, where the headline above an April 2009 story described him as “A hero you should know.”

Accompanying the story was a photo of Austin, then a lieutenant general, looking fit in his U.S. Army fatigues with American flag and Airborne patches on his right shoulder, towering over President Obama and Gen. David Petraeus in the scorching heat of an Iraqi summer.

If Central Casting were asked to produce an individual embodying all of the qualities desired in a military leader, the end product would closely resemble the 58-year-old four-star general. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Austin still carries himself with the grace of a former high school basketball team captain whose rebounding prowess and propensity for doing the “dirty work” in the low post earned him enshrinement in the Thomasville, Ga., athletic hall of fame externalweb. That massive frame, coupled with a baritone voice, enables Austin to inspire or intimidate as needed.

What ultimately sets Austin apart and enables him to win and maintain the respect of everyone from White House insiders to the troops he has led into combat is his combination of valor and values, his ability to carefully assess complex situations and find solutions. A 2008 profile in Newsweek described his style as “thoughtful but decisive,” which contradicts the Hollywood caricatures of generals as fire-breathing, profanity-spewing, posterior-kickers.

“Leadership is a fascinating thing,” Austin said in a 2012 interview with Ebony magazine. “If you look at what the average American envisions the general to be, the commander to be, there’s this [George S.] Patton image. There’s this guy who is loud and forceful, the finger-in-the-chest kind of guy. That works well in the movies, but it won’t make a guy get up and charge a machine gun for you.”

Those who have served with Austin in Afghanistan or Iraq can tell you he doesn’t have to be the finger-in-the-chest guy to motivate and make things happen. In all likelihood, he will be the man leading the charge to the machine gun nest.

AU ‘through and through’

Austin, who took office as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army in January 2012, became the fourth College of Education graduate to earn a Lifetime Achievement Award au icon from the Auburn Alumni Association au icon. Austin, who earned a master’s degree in counselor education, was honored along with retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Livingston `62, surgeon and researcher Kirby Isaac Bland `64 and astronaut and aerospace engineer Jan Davis `77.

When Austin and his wife Charlene `85, who also earned a master’s in counselor education from Auburn, returned to campus for the awards dinner in March, they took time to stroll through Haley Center and take in Samford Hall and Cater Lawn. Austin entered the counselor education program as the result of a partnership between Auburn and the U.S. Military Academy. West Point graduates selected for service as tactical officers were eligible for specialized training in the areas of human development, leadership, personality theory and group dynamics.

“He came home one day and asked, ‘What would you think about earning a master’s degree at Auburn University?’’’ Charlene Austin recalled. “I said, ‘Where’s that?.’ He said, ‘It’s one of the best schools in the country.’”

Austin was already on the fast track as a military leader, but also distinguished himself as a scholar in the graduate program.

“He immediately established himself as a superior student with outstanding academic and leadership gifts,” Mark Meadows, emeritus professor and department head of counseling and counseling psychology in the College of Education, wrote of Austin in a Lifetime Achievement Award support letter. “It was quite obvious to our Auburn faculty that he was a leader among leaders. His subsequent accomplishments reinforce my memory of him as a uniquely gifted individual with an uncommon depth of character.”

Austin continues to follow Auburn from afar, tracking the progress of the football team when time allows. Mrs. Austin, who has been active as an advocate for military families, said she and her husband gained “credibility and credentials” from their graduate work in the College of Education.

“We’re Auburn through and through,” she said.

Seeing the battlefield clearly

Before moving to the Pentagon as vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, Austin served as commanding general of U.S. Forces in Iraq and held in a variety of other roles there and in Afghanistan aimed at what he once described as “trying to work ourselves out of a job.” As the first African-American general to lead an entire war effort in a major theater of operation and the first African-American division commander to lead troops into combat, Austin’s approach broke the mold as much as his skin tone did.

Leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom I in 2003, Austin carefully studied the successes and failures of Operation Desert Storm to determine the best way to topple any resistance that lay in wait. Austin, a one-star general at the time, led the 3rd Infantry Division on a sweep from Kuwait into Baghdad, driving directly into the teeth of Saddam Hussein’s 40,000-member Fedayeen force. Rather than taking the traditional approach of many commanders who monitor battlefield operations from afar, Austin positioned himself at the point of the bayonet.

During the capture of Baghdad, Austin was literally calling the shots while taking and returning fire from the enemy. Artillery explosions and machine gun fire provided the soundtrack as his column rolled into the city.

“In order to command a fight, I had to see the battlefield,” he told Ebony. “[Desert Storm] moved so fast that it outran the ability of the command post to keep up. It was very easy for the command post to be irrelevant because of the fast pace. So one of my goals was to develop a command post that was mobile enough to be relevant to the fight and to be in the fight; to be far enough up front so I could see the battlefield and what was going on.”

During his second deployment as an operational commander in 2008 in which he oversaw 150,000 U.S. and coalition forces, Austin played a crucial role in the Battle of Basra – the first significant campaign carried out by the new Iraqi Army. After Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent his soldiers after Shia militia without requesting U.S. assistance, Austin provided counsel to him and quickly mobilized a tactical operations center to gather intelligence, coordinate airstrikes and link Iraqi and American soldiers in combat, side-by-side, for the first time. His quick action came at a crucial juncture, tipping the balance in what had been a precarious situation and setting the tone for coalition forces to stabilize and pacify pockets of insurgence.

Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Austin proved to be the right man for what was a “singularly challenging job” in a “defining time for both the nation of Iraq and the United States of America.”

“In the company of great leaders, Lloyd Austin is the ‘best of the best,’” Mullen declared in a handwritten note that accompanied a letter of support written on behalf of Austin for the Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Austin embarked on a third tour of Iraq in 2010 as commanding general of Operation New Dawn with the mandate of stabilizing Iraq and improving relations with its government and its people while overseeing the drawdown of 50,000 U.S. soldiers at the time of his deployment. Those on the ground in Iraq credit Austin with playing a critical role in America winning the war and creating a climate that allowed for a transfer of power.

“Gen. Austin has served our nation in the United States Army with distinction,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said in supporting Austin’s nomination for Auburn’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “Serving five times in combat zones, Lloyd worked tirelessly to enhance our regional military partners, counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency capabilities in order to help the nations of the region help themselves against the many threats to stability they face.”

Cool under pressure

Those who have known Austin for any length of time aren’t surprised by his ability to provide calm, focused leadership under the most trying circumstances imaginable. Frances Hesselbein, president and CEO of the Leader to Leader Institute, has often conducted leadership workshops for Austin and his officers over the years. During one of Austin’s deployments to Iraq, the general and his officers set up a video conference with Hesselbein. About 15 minutes into a spirited discussion of leadership, Hesselbein heard a deafening cacophony and the screen went dark.

“I sat, not moving, praying they were all right, they were safe,” Hesselbein recalled. “Then, the screen lit up, and in a cool voice, Gen. Austin said, ‘Frances, I apologize for all the noise, but two bombs fell nearby; they didn’t hit anything.’ And we continued our leadership dialogue, Lloyd and his men on the battlefield of North Baghdad and I in New York City.”

That unwavering focus and ability to solve problems and inspire others will come in handy in his current role as vice chief of staff. Austin serves as the principal advisor and assistant to Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno and assists in the management of Army installations and facilities as well as with oversight of Army policies, plans and programs. In his new position, Austin will help the Army address such concerns as family and soldier support systems, including treatment of wounded warriors and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

The man once described in print as the “hero you should know” will now leverage his education, training and leadership skills to help the heroes we may not know so well, the men and women who have returned home from active duty and those who remain deployed.  The man described by Mullen as “the best of the best” will do his part to ensure that those who have served their country honorably are well-served in return.

“He is both a soldier and a statesman,” Mullen wrote of Austin. “… He personifies the ideals of 21st century service.”

Last Updated: Apr 30, 2012

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