The end of the military's ban on openly gay service members makes today "a historic day for the Pentagon and the nation," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday.
"These are men and women who put their lives on the line in defense of this country, and that's what should matter," Panetta said in a press conference.
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy (DADT) officially ended at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday. Congress repealed DADT last December, and President Obama signed a certification of the repeal in July. The repeal went into effect today after a 60-day waiting period.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Panetta in praising the policy change, saying it makes the military "more tolerant" and "more in keeping with our own values."
"At the heart of the issue for me is the integrity of the institution," he said. "Seeing this change is a huge step in the right direction."
Still, Mullen acknowledged there are still legal barriers preventing gay troops from being treated completely equally. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibits gay service members and their spouses from receiving all of the same benefits other troops receive.
"We follow the law here," Mullen said with respect to DOMA. "We're going to follow that law as long as it exists."
In a separate press conference, a group of bipartisan senators also hailed the end of DADT. Some key senators said they supported further advancing gay rights. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he and other members would consult with the military on how to address the fact that service members who were discharged because of their sexuality have no special privilege when it comes to re-enlisting.
"Hopefully we'll come up with some practical ways of undoing some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated," he said.