The nation's top uniformed military officer told graduating Air Force Academy cadets they need to support a changing military as Congress nears a vote on repealing the military's ban on openly gay servicemembers.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked to 1,001 graduating cadets at the academy on Wednesday.
The Senate Armed Services Committee plans to vote Thursday on overturning the ban.
Mullen didn't speak directly about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that appears to be nearing an end. But he spoke broadly about change in the military.
"Few things are more important to an organization than people who have the moral courage to question the direction in which the organization is going — and then the strength of character to support whatever final decisions are made," Mullen said.
The White House has said Mullen is on board with the repeal of the ban.
Later in the day, Mullen was headed to nearby Peterson Air Force Base outside Colorado Springs to take questions from servicemembers.
The bill in Congress would overturn the "don't ask, don't tell" policy but still allow the military to decide when and how to implement any changes to accommodate the new policy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he agrees that the ban should be lifted, but he wants time to complete a wide-ranging study on how to do so without causing turmoil.
Mullen stressed loyalty to the new 2nd lieutenants who graduated from the Air Force Academy. But he said it "must never be blind."
Mullen also praised young people for continuing to choose military careers despite ongoing wars.
"We have been a nation at war for nearly half your young lives," Mullen noted.
He urged the new officers to be open to working with foreign military officers to achieve common goals and said he recently "sat cross-legged ... with tribal leaders in Afghanistan."
"Respect cannot be gained in a PowerPoint slide," Mullen said.
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.