WASHINGTON (RNN) - President Barack Obama will paved the way for thousands of openly gay men and women to serve in the military for the first time in 17 years as he signed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" into law Wednesday morning.
"People will look back on this moment and wonder why was this ever a source of controversy in the first place," Obama said before a group of discharged gay and lesbian soldiers.
Obama pointed out the place in history given to the first generation of soldiers allowed to serve openly in the military.
"As the first generation to serve openly in the armed forces, you will stand for all those who came before you, and you will stand as role models to all those who come after," he said.
Obama told the soldiers that this was a moment two centuries in the making.
"There can be little doubt there were gay soldiers who fought for American independence," he said.
The repeal legislation was approved overwhelmingly Saturday by the Senate in a 65-31 vote. Earlier in the week, the House passed the same bill, allowing it to be sent immediately to the president for signature.
"This is an historic moment," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, a co-sponsor of the repeal legislation, in a news release after the two chambers of Congress concurred on repeal. "Like our closest allies, the United States' Armed Forces should welcome the service of any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country."
Repeal, however, will not be immediate. The legislation states that the president, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must each certify that all new policies are consistent with the military's standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention.
"I look forward to working with Secretary [Robert M.] Gates and the service chiefs as we set about the task of preparing and certifying the joint force to implement the new law," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a news release. "And I am committed to making sure that process is well-led, maintains our combat readiness and upholds our high standards."
Gates announced that Dr. Clifford Stanley, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness and a retired marine general, will lead the planning efforts to implement repeal. His work, Gates said, will begin as soon as Obama's signature is placed on the bill.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, echoed Collins' words in an emotional speech on the Senate floor before the bill's passage. He spoke about the first casualty in the Iraq war - a gay soldier whose life was taken by a landmine.
"And that mine didn't give a darn if he was gay or straight," the senator said. "We shouldn't, either."
DADT was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Under the policy, some 14,000 troops, whose training costs are estimated at $500 million in taxpayer dollars, were discharged from the U.S. armed services. Discharges accounted for 10 percent of foreign language specialists, many who proved irreplaceable, according to Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-NY.
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