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Panetta thanks gay service members, as Defense Department marks gay pride month

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Feb. 14, 2012: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday personally thanked gay service members, as part of the Defense Department acknowledging June as Gay Pride Month.

The acknowledgement by Panetta comes nine months after the Obama administration repealed the military’s long-standing “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that kept gays from serving openly in the military.

The policy also forced more than 13,500 service members out of the military.

"As we recognize Pride Month, I want to personally thank all of our gay and lesbian service members, LGBT civilians and their families for their dedicated service to our country," Panetta said in a video message.

Panetta also said in the roughly two-minute video that he is committed to removing as many barriers as possible to making the military a model of equal opportunity.

The repeal of the "don't ask" policy was initiated under Defense Secretary Robert Gates. President Obama singed the repeal act in December 2010, and the law took effect in September 2011.

The Defense Department also is expected to hold its first event to recognize gay and lesbian troops. Details are still being worked out, but officials said Panetta wants to honor the contributions of gay service members.

"Now that we've repealed 'don't ask, don't tell,' he feels it's important to find a way this month to recognize the service and professionalism of gay and lesbian troops," said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman.

The event will follow a tradition at the Pentagon of recognizing diversity in America's armed forces. Hallway displays and activities, for example, have marked Black History Month and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

Before the repeal, gay troops could serve but couldn't reveal their sexual orientation. If they did, they would be discharged. At the same time, a commanding officer was prohibited from asking a service member whether he or she was gay.

Though some feared repeal of the ban on serving openly would cause problems in the ranks, officials and gay advocacy groups say no big issues have materialized -- aside from what advocacy groups criticize as slow implementation of some changes, such as benefit entitlements to troops in same-sex marriages.

Basic changes have come rapidly since repeal; the biggest is that gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines no longer have to hide their sexuality in order to serve. They can put photos on their office desk without fear of being outed, attend social events with their partners and openly join advocacy groups looking out for their interests.

OutServe, a once-clandestine professional association for gay service members, has nearly doubled in size to more than 5,500 members. It held its first national convention of gay service members in Las Vegas last fall, then a conference on family issues this year in Washington.

At West Point, the alumni gay advocacy group Knights Out was able to hold the first installment in March of what is intended to be an annual dinner in recognition of gay and lesbian graduates and Army cadets. Gay students at the U.S. Naval Academy were able to take same-sex dates to the academy's Ring Dance for third-year midshipmen.

Panetta said last month that military leaders had concluded that repeal had not affected morale or readiness. A report to Panetta with assessments from the individual military service branches said that as of May 1 they had seen no ill effects.

"I don't think it's just moving along smoothly, I think it's accelerating faster than we even thought the military would as far as progress goes," said Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, a finance officer and co-director of OutServe.

He said acceptance has been broad among straight service members and has put a spotlight on unequal treatment that gays continue to receive in some areas. "We are seeing such tremendous progress in how much the military is accepting us, but not only that -- in how much the rank and file is now understanding the inequality that's existing right now," he said.

That's a reference to the fact that same-sex couples aren't afforded spousal health care, assignments to the same location when they transfer to another job, and other benefits. There was no immediate change to eligibility standards for military benefits in September. All service members already were entitled to certain things, such as designating a partner as one's life insurance beneficiary or as designated caregiver in the Wounded Warrior program.

As for other benefits still not approved, the department began a review after repeal with an eye toward possibly extending eligibility, consistent with the federal Defense of Marriage Act and other applicable laws, to the same-sex partners of military personnel.

"The department is carefully and deliberately reviewing the benefits from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective," Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Thursday.

Gay marriage has been perhaps the most difficult issue.

Though chaplains on bases in some states are allowed to hold what the Pentagon officials call "private services" -- they don't use the words wedding or marriage -- such unions do not garner marriage benefits because the Defense of Marriage Act says marriage is between a man and a woman.

The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was in force for 18 years, and its repeal was a slow and deliberate process.

When Obama signed the repeal legislation, he framed the issue as a matter of civil rights long denied.

"We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot," he said. "And a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal."

The military then did an assessment for several months to certify that the forces were prepared to implement it in a way that would not hurt military readiness. And it held training for its 2.25 million-person force to inform everyone of the coming change and what was expected.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.