-- WASHINGTON - The military is a stronger force since repealing the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military, the nation's top military officer said Tuesday.
"Today, with implementation of the new law fully in place, we are a stronger joint force, a more tolerant joint force, a force of more character and more honor, more in keeping with our own values," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Repeal of the "Don't ask, don't tell" law, which banned openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, went into effect Tuesday.
The debate over the 18-year-old policy grew contentious and Mullen said it was time for the military to move on.
"It's the right thing to do. It's done. We need to move on," Mullen said.
Critics of the policy said it had forced servicemembers to live a lie while serving their country.
"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," President Obama said in a statement. "As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian servicemembers."
"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."
The bill overturning the ban was signed by Obama in January. Since then, most servicemembers have received training in implementing the law, the Pentagon said.
"Over 97% of our 2.3 million men and women in uniform have now received education and training on repeal," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
Even before Tuesday the military has been accepting applications from openly gay recruits. Now the military can begin processing the applications.
The repeal also brings to an end pending investigations, discharges and other legal proceedings that began under the law. Servicemembers who were discharged under the ban can attempt to re-enlist but will be considered along with all other prior service applicants.
Two key House Republicans recently attempted to delay implementation of the repeal, saying the Pentagon is not prepared for the transition.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., recently sent a letter to Panetta saying, "The department is not ready to implement the repeal because all the policies and regulations necessary for the transition are not yet final."
The Pentagon has said it has kept lawmakers abreast of the policy and regulatory changes associated with the repeal.