WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military passed a historic milestone yesterday with the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in uniform, ending a prohibition that President Barack Obama said had forced gay and lesbian service members to "lie about who they are."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pledged not to allow other issues of equal opportunity, such as allowing women to serve in combat roles, to be ignored or set aside.
"I am committed to removing all of the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant," Panetta told a news conference.
"These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defense of this country, and that's what should matter the most."
Repeal of the 18-year-old legal provision -- commonly known as "don't ask, don't tell," under which gays can serve as long as they don't openly acknowledge their sexual orientation -- took effect yesterday at 12:01 a.m. EDT.
Retiring Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, appearing with Panetta for what was probably his final Pentagon news conference as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that with the new law allowing gays to serve openly, the military is a stronger, more tolerant force with greater character and honor.
"I still believe that it was first and foremost a matter of integrity, that it was fundamentally against everything we stand for as an institution to force people to lie about who they are just to wear a uniform," Mullen said. "We are better than that."
Some in Congress still oppose the change, arguing that it may undermine order and discipline, but top Pentagon leaders have certified that it will not hurt the military.
Obama issued a statement saying he is confident that lifting the ban will enhance U.S. national security.
"As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love," he said."As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members."