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US military ends gay troops ban

The US military has passed an historic milestone with the repeal of the ban on gay people serving openly in uniform, ending a prohibition that President Barack Obama said had forced gay and lesbian service members to "hide who they are".

Defence 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," Mr Panetta told a Pentagon news conference.

"These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defence 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 on Tuesday.

Appearing with Mr Panetta for what was probably his final news Pentagon conference as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retiring Navy Admiral Mike Mullen said that with the new law allowing gays to serve openly, the military is a stronger, more tolerant force with greater character and honour.

"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," the Admiral 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's ability to recruit or to fight wars.

Mr Obama issued a statement saying he is confident that lifting the ban will enhance US national security, that henceforth "our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members".

The head of Pentagon personnel policies issued a memo to the work force at a minute after midnight yesterday east coast time. "All service members are to treat one another with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation," the memo from Clifford Stanley said.

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