By Phil Stewart and Laura MacInnis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday announced the U.S. military's ban on gays will end on September 20, in a major victory for rights advocates who overcame concerns about enacting the change during wartime.
Obama, along with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, certified that military readiness will not suffer by repealing the nearly 18-year-old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law.
The long-awaited move triggers a 60-day waiting period before repeal of the divisive policy, which over the years has led to the expulsion of more than 13,000 gays and lesbians who failed to keep their sexual orientation secret.
"Today, we have taken the final major step toward ending the discriminatory 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," Obama said.
"'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' will end, once and for all, in 60 days."
Abolishing the ban fulfills one of Obama's campaign promises and answers a call by gay rights advocates, who had been successfully pursuing a parallel battle in court to strike down the policy on constitutional grounds.
Although the flurry of reaction in Washington was overwhelmingly positive, not everyone was cheering the news.
Representative Howard McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, accused the president of failing to properly address the concerns expressed by military service chiefs about the impact on troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"They worry that the combat readiness of our force could be placed at risk, particularly those serving on the front lines," McKeon said.
Critics of repeal, including within the Pentagon, had long argued it was too risky to pursue at a time when the military was stretched by nearly a decade of war.
But a Pentagon study unveiled last year predicted that scrapping the policy would have little impact.
Major General Steven Hummer, the head of the repeal implementation team, told reporters training so far had laid the groundwork for "a smooth and orderly transition."
Mullen, who had been a forceful advocate of repeal, said that more training was needed, adding "certification does not mark the end of our work."
With repeal, U.S. service members can for the first time openly discuss their sexual orientation without fear of dismissal on September 20. While some are expected to make their sexual orientation known, others may opt to keep the matter private.
Pentagon officials say gay and lesbian servicemembers would be treated like anyone else in the military -- including deployments to countries, even those where homosexuality might be frowned upon or outlawed.
There would not be separate bathrooms or living quarters for gays and lesbians, they said.
Still, repeal will not give partners of gays and lesbians in the military all the same benefits as heterosexual spouses, such as medical care, travel and housing allowances.
Pentagon officials pointed to U.S. laws constricting their ability to treat same-sex and heterosexual couples equally.
The American Civil Liberties Union praised the move but warned it would seek justice for service members discharged in the past, who only get half the separation pay given to "honorably" discharged members of the military.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)