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Importance Of Diversity Among The Highest Ranks Of The Military

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, President-Elect Joe Biden introduced the man he wants to be his secretary of defense, retired General Lloyd Austin. Austin oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East as CENTCOM commander. He retired just four years ago, so Congress will need to grant him a waiver to serve as civilian leader of the military. Austin spoke about that tension today.

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LLYOD AUSTIN: Being a member of the president's Cabinet requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in uniform. And I intend to keep this at the forefront of my mind.

SHAPIRO: I spoke earlier today with a man who served alongside Austin in Iraq, retired Lieutenant General Stephen Twitty. And I asked about Austin's leadership style.

STEPHEN TWITTY: Well, I will tell you, he's unflappable, both in combat and in peacetime. I've had the opportunity to serve with him twice now, and I really cherish my time in combat with him. And as you probably know, we had the hard task of taking down Baghdad. And I was one of the infantry battalion commanders on the ground that attacked into Baghdad. And without his leadership, we probably would not have been able to make that mission happen.

SHAPIRO: Is there a specific moment you can tell us about that reflects on the way he approaches leading a team or solving a problem?

TWITTY: One moment that I remember quite vividly - I was south of an intersection that I was supposed to seize. And we were crossing the Euphrates River Valley. And upon crossing the Euphrates River Valley, we were told that we're going to get chemed (ph). Everyone thought the chemical attack was coming. And so he was positioned just south of that bridge. PR (ph), a one-star general, the leader of the division - he was there at the point of attack, the potential attack for chem for us. He was leading from the front. He knew the possibility of us being chem was likely, and he was there to make sure that he was going to lead us through that effort.

SHAPIRO: Now, if he is confirmed as defense secretary, he will be the first Black man to lead the Pentagon. What is the significance of that?

TWITTY: It has tremendous significance. Forty percent of our military are minorities. It's about time that we had a minority in this position. It allows our young soldiers, our young service members, to look up and say that I can achieve, obviously. And also, the minorities that are working in the Pentagon, the civilians there, they can look up and say that I can achieve this one day. You know, we consider the jobs of this nature - it's a brick wall in front of us, or we can't burst through that sky to be able to get in a position like this with this nomination as we can. It would be refreshing. Not only to have them there because of his color, he is just the right guy to do the job.

You know, he commanded our forces in Afghanistan - commanded the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan - through some hard times. He came back and he commanded the 18th Airborne Corps. Then he went on and became the director of the Joint Staff, where he worked directly with policy and formulating policy with those in the State Department over the Hill and in the White House. He became our vice chief of staff of the Army. And so he broke a ceiling there and became my vice chief of staff for the army. And he broke through the ceiling becoming a combatant commander. And so he understands, in terms of geopolitical politics, the landscape and what needs to be done to ensure that America is not only engaged around the world, but we also have partners and coalitions to help us deal with some of the challenges that we face out there.

SHAPIRO: Retired Lieutenant General Stephan Twitty, thank you for talking with us about your friend and former colleague, retired General Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden's choice to lead the Defense Department.

TWITTY: OK, Ari. It's been great to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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