President Barack Obama on Friday announced he is nominating Eric Fanning to be the next Secretary of the Army, which, if confirmed by the Senate, will make Fanning the first openly gay person to serve in the Army's highest civilian role.
The historic move, which comes almost exactly four years to the day from the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (the policy that did not allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military) makes this nomination that much more significant, even though, as a holder of civilian roles in the Defense Department, DADT did not necessarily apply to Fanning.
In announcing his nomination, Obama cited Fanning's long tenure in the Pentagon and his broad and deep experience with some of the Defense Department's most complex programs as a key factor in his selection, according to the administration. The fact that Fanning happens to be gay is secondary.
"Eric brings many years of proven experience and exceptional leadership to this new role," Obama said in a statement.
Fanning currently serves as acting undersecretary of the Army and chief management officer. He has considerable experience in the military and has held several high level roles, including special assistant to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, undersecretary of the Air Force, acting Air Force secretary and as a deputy undersecretary of the Navy.
Fanning's decades-long experience in military affairs began as a research assistant for the Committee on Armed Services in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1991, after which he served as special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1993 to 1996. He later joined the White House as an associate director of Political Affairs.
Prior to joining the Administration, Fanning was deputy director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and also worked as the Washington regional director then senior vice president for strategic development for Business Executives for National Security.
"Eric served as my first chief of staff at the Pentagon, and it has been a privilege over the course of my career to work alongside him and watch him develop into one of our country's most knowledgeable, dedicated, and experienced public servant[s]," Carter said in a statement. "I know he will strengthen our Army, build on its best traditions, and prepare our ground forces to confront a new generation of challenges."
Fanning's nomination further adds to the Obama Administration's deliberate strategy to include minorities and women in top government posts. In fact, according to the Washington Post, Obama has placed women and minorities in 53.5 percent of top policy roles, while under President George W. Bush women and minorities held only 25.6 percent of those positions. Under President Bill Clinton, the number was 37.5 percent.
Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest advisers, told the Post the president has "made a very deliberate effort to be inclusive in the diversity of his administration at all levels."
"So yes, African Americans, women, Latinos, Native Americans, people with disabilities, the LGBT community … he wanted to make sure that everybody had an opportunity to serve in this administration and that its diversity reflected the diversity of our country."
In response to the nomination, American Military Partner Association, the nation's largest support organization for LGBT military families, praised the move as a huge step forward.
"We are thrilled to see Eric Fanning nominated to lead the world's greatest Army," said AMPA president Ashley Broadway-Mack. "History continues to be written and equality marches forward with the nomination of an openly gay man to serve in this significantly important role."
However, not everybody was as supportive.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on Saturday said Obama was "appeasing" the gay community by nominating an openly gay man to be secretary of the Army.
"It's clear President Obama is more interested in appeasing America's homosexuals than honoring America's heroes. Veterans suicide is out-of-control and military readiness is dangerously low," Huckabee said in a statement. "Yet Obama is so obsessed with pandering to liberal interest groups he's nominated an openly gay civilian to run the Army. Homosexuality is not a job qualification. The U.S. military is designed to keep American safe and complete combat missions, not conduct social experiments."
Huckabee also used the "social experiment" line last month to refer to the idea of transgender individuals serving openly in the military.
"Considering the tremendous struggles that LGBT Americans have faced within the Department of Defense, Fanning's nomination is deeply significant," Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told The Huffington Post. "This is a sign of hope and a demonstration of continued progress towards fairness and equality in our nation's armed forces."
An estimated 78,000 service members in the U.S. military, including active and reserve components, may identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, according to a Rand Corp. study from 2011, the most recent figures available.
The Senate must still confirm Fanning before he can assume the role.