The openly gay official at the Defense Department already seen as a leading contender to become the next Army secretary landed a new role on Thursday that may be a jumping point to the milestone promotion.
Eric Fanning, who most recently served in the Obama administration as Pentagon chief of staff, was tapped by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to become acting under secretary of the Army — the No. 2 civilian position in the service — effective Monday.
Fanning’s appointment as Army under secretary means he’ll have served as an civilian official for three services over the course of the Obama administration. Before becoming Pentagon chief of staff, he was deputy under secretary of the Navy, under secretary of the Air Force, and later for a brief period acting secretary of the Air Force.
In a statement, Carter said Fanning helped to build in his various roles “an outstanding team of civilian and military leaders across the Pentagon.”
“His deep well of knowledge and vast experience in the Pentagon, honed during his tenure as deputy under secretary of the Navy and acting secretary of the Air Force, have been crucial assets for my front office,” Carter said.
But on Thursday in a piece called, “The next Army secretary? The Pentagon may have just made it obvious,” the Washington Post’s Dan Lamonthe said the transition for Fanning is “seen by many as a move to prepare him” to replace ongoing Army Secretary John McHugh in his role leading the service.
Fanning’s potential appointment as Army secretary would be significant because, if he were confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first openly gay person to serve as civilian head of a military service in a relatively permanent capacity. (His brief tenure as acting secretary of the Air Force didn’t require Senate confirmation and was terminated after the Senate confirmed Deborah Lee James to head the civilian component of the service).
It remains to be seen if President Obama will nominate Fanning for the position as Army secretary. After all, even when he served as under secretary of the Air Force, Obama still elected to nominate James as Air Force secretary. Still, a defense official confirmed to the Washington Blade on Thursday that Fanning remains the leading candidate to become Army secretary.
In a 2013 interview with the Washington Blade, Fanning is his capacity as under secretary of the Air Force said he supports allowing transgender people to serve openly in the U.S. military, which is currently barred because of medical regulation.
“I think that the military is stronger, institutions are stronger, and society is stronger the more inclusive that we are,” Fanning said. “So, wherever we can root out discrimination, I think it’s a positive thing.”