In a first for the Pentagon, President Obama will nominate Eric K. Fanning as secretary of the Army, making him the first openly gay civilian to head a U.S. military service.
Fanning, 47, who must be confirmed by the Senate, has held a series of high-profile posts at the Pentagon after a career in public service and TV journalism. He was named acting undersecretary of the Army in June after a stint as special assistant to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
The nomination is the latest and arguably most symbolic move by the Obama administration to lift historic barriers against women, as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals seeking to serve in the U.S. military.
His selection was applauded by gay rights groups that have fought for years to see the Pentagon open its ranks. Critics seized on the nomination as a sign that the White House is more concerned with political correctness than leadership of the nation’s largest military branch.
If confirmed, Fanning would head an Army that faces sharp reductions in troop levels, budget cuts from Congress and fears of fresh conflict in the Middle East after more than a decade of grueling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Eric brings many years of proven experience and exceptional leadership to this new role,” Obama said in a statement. “I am grateful for his commitment to our men and women in uniform, and I am confident he will help lead America’s soldiers with distinction.”
“I know he will strengthen our Army, build on its best traditions, and prepare our ground forces to confront a new generation of challenges,” Carter said in a separate statement.
Fanning is expected to support efforts to build a leaner, more high-tech Army, which Carter called “the force of the future.”
Born and raised in Michigan, Fanning graduated from Dartmouth College. He worked for the House Armed Services Committee, at the Pentagon, and then at the White House in the 1990s before be became an associate producer at CBS News.
From 2001 to 2007, he worked for a group called Business Executives for National Security, then became deputy director of a commission focused on preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
His star rose sharply after he joined the Obama administration in 2009 as undersecretary of the Navy. He was named acting secretary of the Air Force in 2013, and then undersecretary of the Air Force. In March this year, he was named chief of staff to Carter, the secretary of Defense.
Under Carter, the military has sped up efforts to integrate women into combat and other roles previously reserved for men. The military services are poised to allow women to serve in most front-line combat jobs, including special operations forces, as early as this fall.
If confirmed, Fanning would work closely with the Army’s senior officer, Gen. Mark Milley, who has held the post since August.
Their immediate task is to fight for the budget. Under congressionally mandated cuts, the Army is set to shrink to 450,000 troops by 2018 — its smallest size since World War II.
An additional 30,000 troops may be trimmed from the rolls if the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, return. The cuts will kick in if Congress fails to reach a new budget deal by Oct. 1.
Fanning’s nomination received praise from Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, organization.
The group’s president, Chad Griffin, called Fanning’s selection “deeply significant.”
“This is a sign of hope and a demonstration of continued progress towards fairness and equality in our nation’s armed forces,” he said.
Two months ago, the Pentagon took a major step toward easing its ban on transgender men and women in uniform, announcing a six-month study designed to clear the way.
In June, the Pentagon gave gay and lesbian service members full protection from discrimination under an equal opportunity policy, meaning it will treat discrimination based on sexual orientation the same as it considers race, religion, color, sex, age and national origin when investigating complaints.
The moves came nearly four years after the Pentagon formally ended “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a 17-year-old law that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. If they revealed their sexual orientation, they could be kicked out, according to the law.
Over the years, thousands of men and women in uniform were expelled. Openly gay civilian employees at the Defense Department faced similar discrimination until 1995 because they often could not obtain security clearances required to work in national security agencies.
Naming the first gay Army secretary helps “set the tone at the top and provides an opportunity to bring better understanding about both the shared and the unique needs of LGBT individuals in the military and their families,” said Matt Thorn, interim executive director of OutServe - Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington-based organization that seeks LGBT equality in the military.