June 02, 2016 04:40 PM

Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning “never thought he’d be back” at the Pentagon.

The 47-year-old made history last month when the U.S. Senate confirmed him as the first openly gay secretary of a major military branch. He’s also the first to have served as a senior civilian executive in all three departments of the Pentagon – the Navy, the Air Force and the Army.

But before that, he was a 24-year-old junior aid, working in the building under the Clinton administration.

“I ended up leaving because I didn’t see there was a future for me as an openly gay man,” Fanning told Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview on Today.” And so to be able to come back in this job is beyond what I had ever imagined.”

Fanning’s historic appointment comes less than five years after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – the policy put into place in 1994 that had prohibited gay and lesbian service members from disclosing their sexual orientation while serving in the United States armed forces.

“I grew up in a military family,” Fanning explained. “I have two uncles that went to West Point, and it was absolutely something that I considered. But I wasn’t allowed to serve, so I chose another route.”

While Fanning feels responsible to the Army, the historic nature of his appointment is not lost on him. And even though he first rejected the label, he’s now come to embrace being a role model for members of the LGBTQ community.

“I’ve gotten used to the fact that this is going to be a part of any time I get a new job. When it first happened, I was more bothered because I didn’t quite have the track record that I have now, and I wanted to focus on qualifications. Now, I embrace it. It’s so important to so many people I realize, and something I didn’t have 25 years ago,” he said.

Still, despite the change in policy, Fanning still finds himself helping his colleagues adjust to the changing culture – going as far to tell Lauer he’s addressed careless comments made by colleagues.

“We all use lingo that maybe we don’t understand the impact it has on other people,” he says. “It’s an educational moment. At no time did anybody do anything where there was any menace behind it. I’ve haven’t had to confront anyone for what they’ve done either to me or behind my back. This is too hierarchical of a culture.”

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Fanning only has his historic position for eight months, as a new President will pick a new Secretary of the Army. In that short time, he has a lot on his plate. After more than a decade of wars, the Army faces increasing demands, budget cuts and fatigue.

“It’s still a very strong, very lethal Army but we’re running it hard,” he explained. “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.”

Fanning also went on to discuss the Army’s suicide rate – which is the highest of any branch of the military.

“That’s a hard issue to get after, and 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.

As for whether Fanning would want to remain in the position come January or move up to Secretary of Defense, Fanning says it’s too soon to think that far. “January 21st, I imagine myself on a beach someplace,” he joked.

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