Army Secretary Eric Fanning, the first openly gay leader of any U.S. military branch, says he now embraces the historic role that he once felt uneasy about.
“I've gotten used to the fact that this is going to be a part of any time I get a new job or do something,” he told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview that aired Thursday.
“And when it first happened I was more bothered by it because I didn't quite have the track record that people know now. And I wanted the focus on qualifications. Now I embrace it,” he said. “It’s so important to so many people, I realize. And something I didn't have 25 years ago.”
"It is the best job that I have ever had — and an incredible honor," Fanning added.
The Senate confirmed Fanning’s nomination last month, a move that came five years after Congress repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that had banned openly gay service members from serving in the U.S. military if they acknowledged their sexual orientation. The policy had been in place since 1994 and played a big role in some of Fanning’s career choices.
“I was first in this building in the Clinton administration as a 24-year-old junior aide and I ended up leaving, because I didn't see that there was a future for me as an openly gay man,” he said. “And so to be able to come back in this job is beyond what I had ever imagined.”
While serving in the Obama administration, Fanning has been the acting secretary of the Air Force and deputy undersecretary of the Navy. He also served as special assistant to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
“I feel a responsibility as secretary of the Army, not just because of the historical nature of the appointment because I'm gay,” he said. “And I take that responsibility very seriously. I grew up in a military family. I have two uncles that went to West Point. And it was absolutely something that I considered, but wasn't allowed to serve and so chose another route.”
Fanning inherits an Army facing increasing demands on the force, ongoing budget restraints and overall fatigue from more than a decade of wars and conflicts.
“It's the strain that we're putting on our soldiers as we continually deploy them and their families. And that's when I say tired,” he said. “It's still a very strong, very lethal Army but we're running it hard.”
That pressures from that demand may contribute to a suicide rate that is highest in the Army compared to any other military branch. Fanning said he hopes to address that difficult and complex issue.
“It’s going to be one of my top priorities. And the trend over the last five years has been going down, but not fast enough and we need to get to zero. Even one suicide is too much,” he said.
Fanning’s tenure could be a brief one. Technically, he only has eight months of job security since the next president will get to select a new secretary of the Army.
“I think the service secretaries are just amazingly rewarding jobs. That said, January 21st, I imagine myself on a beach someplace,” he quipped.
Asked if he would be willing to repeat the arduous Senate confirmation procedure in the next administration for a promotion — to Secretary of Defense — Fanning said it's too soon to imagine the scenario.
“Right now, I can't imagine going through the process again," he said.