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Eric Fanning, First Openly Gay Army Secretary, Sworn In By Senate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, the Senate unanimously confirmed Eric Fanning to be secretary of the Army. This appointment is historic. Fanning is the first openly gay leader of a branch of the U.S. military. Earlier today, we had a wide-ranging conversation starting with something that has been in the news all too often - sexual assault in the military. A new report by Human Rights Watch says the Pentagon is not doing enough to prevent commanders from retaliating against service members who report sexual assault and harassment. Fanning acknowledged the military has a lot more work to do.

ERIC FANNING: And as secretary of the Army, one of the things that I can do and I will do is make sure that we're keeping pressure on getting a better understanding of what's happening, what's working, what's not working and keeping the momentum moving forward.

SHAPIRO: You say we have to learn from what's working. Based on what you know, what isn't working? What has to be changed, specifically?

FANNING: Well, we are getting into the retaliation issue. I do believe we need to look into that more closely and understand what is retaliation and why retaliation is taking place. And for me, I think you cannot communicate and educate enough on the important issues. And so the core issue, I think, on a lot of these things is making sure that we're getting that training right for our soldiers at all levels.

SHAPIRO: And do you think there is a place for retroactive justice for the thousands of people who have, in some cases, been hounded out of the military after they were victimized while they were in the military?

FANNING: Absolutely. I think this is something we need to do in a number of cases - people who were unfairly discharged and had the wrong classification under Don't Ask Don't Tell, people who are discharged for behavioral health issues that may have resulted from something that happened while they were serving, and certainly for people that were improperly discharged or even hounded out because of sexual assault issues.

SHAPIRO: Now, the number of active-duty troops in the Army is - as I'm sure you know - the lowest point since 1940. Do you believe you have the manpower and resources you need to complete current missions and also be ready for contingencies, like the rise of ISIS over the last few years?

FANNING: Well, we are meeting the combatant commander requirements today even as we draw down the force. And it's a little bit apples and oranges to compare the size of the force today with what we had in World War II because the capability of our force today is a dramatic improvement over what it was before. But there is a risk in meeting emerging threats as we draw down the force, but we feel like we have a good balance with the resources that we're given to provide some flex for a surge if it's necessary, and then also to continue invest for the Army of the future.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to talk about how the Army spends its money and gets the weapons and vehicles it needs. The Army has a long history - as do other parts of the military - of acquiring weapons and vehicles that it may not need and in some cases doesn't even want because they're manufactured in a powerful lawmaker's home state. Can you realistically change that?

FANNING: Well, I think when you draw down the budget as we have, that certainly puts pressure on Congress to align more closely with the priorities that we send over. But it has been a frustration. I think we have a pretty substantial budget for the military, but we don't always get the bang for the buck we want out of it. And not just because of what you mentioned but also just in the unstable political environment we've found our self in the last few years. It's been very difficult if not impossible to plan a long-term budget.

SHAPIRO: So what does that mean? You're going to meet with individual lawmakers and say knock it off, or, how do you fix this?

FANNING: We do spend a lot of time. I see it as a big part of my job on the Hill explaining what constraints we're up against when we're trying to put a budget together and get as much combat power out of it as possible. Certainly members care - and I can understand this - about the economies of their districts and their state and the jobs in their districts and their state, and we try to balance that 'cause we want to maintain a robust industrial base that we can depend on into the future with what needs we have against the resources we're given.

SHAPIRO: Every headline about your confirmation notes that you are the first openly gay person to lead a branch of the military. Do you think that's an important landmark?

FANNING: I do. It's interesting for me because I feel like that becomes the main story each time I get a new job. But I'm reminded each time this happens how many people out there don't see opportunities for themselves for whatever reason, whether it's their sexual orientation, whether it's their ethnicity, whether it's their economic background. And so when these stories pop up and I'm the subject of what really is a tremendous outpouring of support, it reminds me that these types of things are important because they show others what opportunities are available to them.

SHAPIRO: Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FANNING: Thank you Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.