Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter died Monday evening in Boston of a sudden cardiac event. He was 68.
“It is with deep and profound sadness that the family of former Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter shares that Secretary Carter passed away Monday evening in Boston after a sudden cardiac event at the age of 68,” Carter’s family said in a statement Tuesday.
February 2015 to January 2017. He was also a public policy professor who directed the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School up until his death.
Carter “devoted his professional life to the national security of the United States and teaching students about international affairs,” his family said in the statement. “He was a beloved husband, father, mentor, and friend. His sudden loss will be felt by all who knew him.”
As the nation’s 25th Defense secretary, Carter notably opened all military combat positions to women and ended the ban on transgender troops serving in the military — a policy that remained in place for about a year before former President Donald Trump reinstated the ban.
The former Defense secretary had publicly expressed his more hawkish views on war, taking on a more aggressive stance than others in the Obama administration during its campaign to defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He called for a “lasting defeat” of the Islamic State, launching at the outset of his tenure a reorganization of the United States’ counter-Islamic State campaign that was ultimately successful in helping Iraqi forces seize and hold Islamic State strongholds.
Pentagon acquisition chief Bill LaPlante on Tuesday issued a personal statement on Carter’s passing, calling him “a giant in national security” who mentored many people and “inspired us to go into public service.”
“He worked tirelessly to ensure the security of the United States and his contributions will never be forgotten,” LaPlante said. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
Carter served presidents of both parties over five administrations — with his first political appointment to the Pentagon coming from former President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, when he served as the assistant secretary of Defense for global strategic affairs. Carter held several other roles within the Pentagon, including deputy secretary of Defense and under secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
He also served as a member of the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board, the Defense Policy Board, the Defense Science Board and the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism.
Carter began his career as a physicist, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in physics and medieval history from Yale University in 1976. He was awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship from the University of Oxford, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1979.
Carter had a long academic career in addition to his government work. He served as both a professor and the director of the Center for Science and International Affairs in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Carter rejoined Harvard as a professor in 2017 and became the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs — the new name of the center he previously headed at the school.
“He believed that his most profound legacy would be the thousands of students he taught with the hope that they would make the world a better and safer place,” his family said in their statement.
Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf announced Carter’s passing to faculty and students on Tuesday in a note that praised the former Defense secretary for being “an important leader of the Kennedy School during the past five years.” He described Carter’s passion for working with students and lauded his contributions to the school, namely in helping with faculty recruitment and expanding curriculum on public policy and technology.
“For my part, I want to offer my gratitude for his insight and wisdom, his unwavering commitment to trying to make the world better, his confidence that the Kennedy School can make an important difference in the world, his generous spirit toward his students and colleagues, and his warm and gracious friendship with me,” Elmendorf said in the announcement. “I will miss him so much.”