WASHINGTON - The US military's top officer delivered an ardent appeal for lifting the ban on gays serving openly in uniform, saying it was "the right thing to do."
In dramatic testimony before a Senate panel, Admiral Mike Mullen became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to endorse repealing the ban, providing a powerful boost to President Barack Obama's bid to change the policy.
But no action was on the horizon for at least a year as Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled plans to carry out a year-long review looking at the possible effect of ending the ban.
"Speaking for myself, and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Mullen said.
"No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
Wading into politically sensitive territory, Mullen said the issue "comes down to integrity, theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
The admiral said he was optimistic that members of the military "can and would accommodate such a change," saying he had learned never to "underestimate their ability to adapt."
As the highest ranking officer in the country's armed forces, Mullen's unequivocal words carried special weight and will provide a counter to those lawmakers who argue the military opposes the change.
Obama, who had postponed action on the issue in his first year in office, last week renewed his vow to change the 1993 law that requires service members to keep quiet about their sexual orientation or face expulsion from the military.
Gates said the question was not whether to lift the ban "but how best to prepare for it" and promised a thorough, deliberate review focused on objective criteria instead of emotional arguments.
The review, which would look at the potential effect on base housing, compensation and other issues, will be led by the Pentagon's general counsel, Jeh Johnson, and the commander of US Army forces in Europe, General Carter Ham.
Gates said the review would ask service members and their families what they "really think about this," because they "will ultimately determine whether or not we make this transition successfully."
The study would be followed by a plan to carry out the repeal, a decision that ultimately rested with Congress, Gates said.
He added he asked his legal advisors to outline options within 45 days for easing the enforcement of the current law as an interim step.
The shift in interpreting the current law would be designed in part "to reduce the instances in which a service member is outed by a third person with a motive to harm a service member," he said.
The 1993 law, known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," replaced an outright prohibition against homosexuals in the military.
Former president Bill Clinton agreed to the compromise policy after meeting stiff resistance from commanders and lawmakers when he proposed allowing gays to serve openly in uniform.
Senator John McCain, a Vietnam war hero, blasted plans to repeal the ban, saying it was not the time to change the rule when the military was fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Has this policy been ideal? No, it has not. But it has been effective," said McCain.
He accused Gates and Mullen of trying to push through the change "by fiat" and warned the move jeopardized morale and "unit cohesion."
Another Republican, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said that by expressing his opinion, Mullen could be exerting undue influence over his deputies carrying out studies on the issue.
But in a grave tone, Mullen replied: "This is about leadership, and I take that very seriously."
About 13,000 US service members have been discharged under the policy since it was adopted in 1993.
Supporters of a repeal say the law is unjust, deprives the military of qualified service members and that armies in other countries allow gays to serve openly without major problems.