UPDATED JULY 22, 4:30 P.M.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and military leaders on Friday certified that the military is ready for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, setting the stage for openly gay troops to begin serving in the military in late September.
The certification comes after months of training for military personnel to prepare them for the presence of openly gay uniformed colleagues for the first time in history, and starts the 60-day waiting period before the law is completely removed.
Under rules outlined by Congress in December, the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were required to certify that the services are ready for the dramatic personnel change before the law could be repealed.
“As of September 20th, service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country,” Obama said in a statement. “Our military will no longer be deprived of the talents and skills of patriotic Americans just because they happen to be gay or lesbian.”
Pentagon officials last week said that the service chiefs had submitted their reports on training and readiness to new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who had stated that repeal could take place in late July or early August.
In comments at a gay-rights event at the White House last month, President Barack Obama said he expected the final steps for repeal to take place “in a matter of weeks, not months.” He also told supporters that the repeal is part of a broad swath of policy changes that shows he “delivered on what I promised” during his presidential campaign.
Gay rights groups hailed Friday’s news as a historic moment for civil rights.
The repeal “is welcomed by gay and lesbian servicemembers who have had to serve their country in silence for far too long,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “The troops and their commanders are ready. Our nation’s top military leaders have testified that commanders see no significant challenges ahead.”
Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said that Panetta’s decision to move ahead after just a few weeks in his new job shows that “he is already confident that this policy change can take place with little or no disruption to military readiness.”
Obama called the certification “the final major step toward ending the discriminatory law that undermines our military readiness and violates American principles of fairness and equality.”
The timeline will determine whether “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was enacted in 1993, will finally end by congressional repeal or by a court ruling.
Earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Pentagon to cease enforcing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” upholding an earlier ruling declaring the law unconstitutional. It’s the second time in less than a year that courts have stopped enforcement of the law, a situation that the White House has called disruptive and confusing for troops.
That court case is pending, but certification and repeal of the law will effectively render the court actions moot. The Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative gay rights group that brought the court case, applauded the certification announcement Friday as “ensuring an absolute end to this unconstitutional law.”
Because the law technically would not end until September, advocacy groups have warned gay troops not to reveal their sexual orientation until after the 60-day period is over.
But just last week, about 200 active-duty troops and veterans marched openly in a San Diego gay pride parade, expressing confidence that the Pentagon would not dismiss any more troops for being gay.
In Afghanistan, the news of an imminent repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law elicited little reaction from troops.
Spc. La Vue, a 23-year-old stationed at Forward Operating Base Joyce in eastern Kunar province, said the issue of openly gay troops “is just not something that gets talked about much. It isn’t going to affect unit cohesion or anything like that.”
Sgt. John Miller, a 37-year-old also serving with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division, said the official announcement likely wouldn’t affect him.
“As long as everyone does their job, it’s cool,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of talk about it (certification). People are people, and we all have a lot of work to do.”
At FOB Airborne in Wardak province, soldiers said they were not concerned about the changes.
“I’m not homophobic,” said Pvt. 1st Class Westley Degree, 21. “As long as they’re out there slinging bullets with me, I don’t care.”
Sgt. Ralph Nichols, 31, was more blunt: “As long as he don’t try nothin’ on me, bring him downrange.”
Reporters Martin Kuz and Neil Shea contributed to this report.