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New Defense secretary Lloyd J. Austin warmly remembered at Fort Drum

Gen. Lloyd Austin III in 2013 (Provided photo — U.S. Central Command)

FORT DRUM — As retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III was confirmed as the Secretary of Defense on Friday, many North Country observers fondly remembered his time as Fort Drum’s commander and the legacy he left behind.

Austin’s distinguished career included leading the post and the 10th Mountain Division from 2003 to 2005, and he’s now the first Black person in charge of the Pentagon.

On Friday, the Senate confirmed him by a 93-2 vote.

But he had to get a waiver from Congress to serve as the defense secretary because his retirement in 2016 did not fulfill the requirement that he had to be out of uniform for seven years.

While he’s had a stellar military career, Austin worked hard to enrich the relationship between Fort Drum and the surrounding community, friends said.

Retired Col. Michael Plummer remembered his friend was a physically imposing figure with his 6-foot, 4-inch frame, but he was obviously a natural leader. Calling it “command climate,” Plummer knew the former 10th Mountain Division commander was the kind of leader who listened to his subordinates even when they disagreed with him, so he’s not surprised President Joseph Biden wanted him to be his Defense secretary.

He had a two-word reaction to the appointment and Friday’s confirmation.

“Great pick,” Plummer said.

While some generals would “kick their ass” if others disagreed with them, his friend, who served as a major general while at Fort Drum, welcomed their input, Plummer recalled.

“He knew how to get the best out of his men,” he said.

The retired colonel got to know and worked with Austin when he was called upon to help the retired four-star general double the size of Fort Drum from 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers.

Austin made sure the soldiers and their families had everything they needed when they came to the North Country. They had new housing, the right schools for their children, and the equipment was there so they could serve in the division, Plummer remembered.

During his tenure here, Gen. Austin commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East as the division expanded its deployments and added the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. He was a pivotal figure in the invasion of Iraq.

But it’s what the retired general and his wife Charlene did for the community that convinced Beth Fipps, a friend of more than 20 years who still remains in contact with them, that he had the right skills to move up in the Army.

“You knew he had a higher purpose,” she said. “He was destined to do good things.”

With his physical presence, Austin would make people stand up and take notice when he entered a room, but it was his warm smile that won them over, she said.

To strengthen the relationship with the North Country, Austin created an award to salute community members, called the Man and Woman of the Mountain, a tradition that continues to this day.

Fipps also worked with Charlene Austin on the Northern New York-Fort Drum chapter of the Association of the United States Army and recalled a conversation she had with the general’s wife while they were attending a conference in Washington, D.C.

At the time, the general was deployed to Iraq. The two women talked about what could be done to make it more known that community members cared about the soldiers and their families. They knew the connection was there, but wanted to “make it more visible,” she recalled.

That’s how local efforts for Operation Yellow Ribbon was born, she said. The volunteer-based committee promotes support for area soldiers and families and sponsors events for them.

Fipps was disappointed when Austin was given another assignment at Fort Bragg and left the North Country. She was also disappointed when he retired from the Army because it “lost one their best.”

But he’s back serving his country again.

While helping the country get through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, figuring out what to do next in Iraq and Afghanistan and easing tensions with allies are some of the goals he’ll have to work on. Austin’s most pressing need will be focusing on getting politics out of the job, as was the case in recent years, Plummer said.

Michelle Capone, president of the local chapter of the AUSA, has met the retired general and his wife during functions in the nation’s capital.

“They’re genuine people,” she said. “We’re very proud that he served at Fort Drum.”

In a message to the entire military on his first day on the job, Austin said he was honored to be working alongside those in uniform and with their families.

“I’m proud to be back on your team,” he wrote.

And, he stressed, that they can only succeed in protecting and serving the country, if they do it together.

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