The all but appointed defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, has said that he supports equal benefits for same-sex military couples in a letter to Senator Barbara Boxer who questioned his previous stance on LGBT rights, before she would endorse him for the post. 

Last week, US President Barack Obama named Chuck Hagel as defence secretary, despite a backlash over his previous comments on gay rights.

The Republican former US senator has come under renewed criticism from LGBT campaigners for comments he made in 1998, when he described ex-US Ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, as “aggressively gay”.

Mr Hagel, previously a strong supporter of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the ban on openly gay people serving in the US military, apologised for the comments last month. 

However, Mr Hormel suggested the apology lacked sincerity and was simply a way of trying to bolster his nomination as the next secretary of defence. Many gay rights groups questioned how appropriate Mr Hagel was for the post, given his previous comments.

In the letter to Senator Barbara Boxer, he said he now fully supports the 2010 repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which banned gay people from serving openly in the US military.

“I know firsthand the profound sacrifice our service members and their families make,” Hagel said, referring to his own combat service in Vietnam. “If confirmed as secretary of defense, I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under law to provide equal benefits to families of all our service members.”

The action Mr Hagel can take to improve the benefits of same-sex couples is limited because the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman on a federal level, is still being in place.

In 2011, President Obama’s administration announced that it would no longer defend the act.

That law prevents most same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits, including military health care, housing allowances and travel payments.

On endorsing Hagel for the post, Senator Boxer said: “In general, I believe any President deserves latitude in selecting his own advisors. While the Senate confirmation process must be allowed to run its course, it is my hope that Senator Hagel’s thorough explanations will remove any lingering controversy regarding his nomination.”

Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press just after Christmas, and in reference to Mr Hagel’s previous anti-gay remarks, President Obama said:

“He apologised for it. And I think it’s a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people’s attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country.

“And that’s something that I’m very proud to have led. And I think that anybody who serves in my administration understands my attitude and position on those issues.”

As well as Senator Barbara Boxer, Senator Charles Schumer, also a Democrat, announced that he would endorse Hagel as candidate for the post of secretary of defence, despite previously voicing reservations.

With Senators Boxer and Schumer on board, it is likely that Mr Hagel will be confirmed for the post, unless Republican senators can find enough votes to block the nomination.