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After Army National Guard lieutenant Dan Choi came out on The Rachel Maddow Show in March of 2009, the West Point graduate become the face of the movement to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. His story galvanized 141,000 people to sign a petition, urging the military board he faced in June of that year to allow him to keep his job as an Arabic linguist in an infantry unit. Even with the outcry, Choi's hearing board, which did not have final say over the matter, recommended to his commander that he be discharged.
But in February, just two weeks after President Barack Obama called for the repeal of DADT in his State of the Union speech, Choi got a call from his commanding officer -- Choi was asked to rejoin his infantry unit.
"It was such a happy moment," Choi says. "It was like coming home for Thanksgiving, especially since I didn't go home for the holidays ... my parents haven't been taking all of this very well."
Choi was never formally handed discharge papers, but his story resonates with more than 13,000 who have been ejected from the military since DADT was enacted in 1993. While many of those veterans have moved on to new careers, some hope to return to the military.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of the group Servicemembers United, says that since his discharge in 2002 from the Army, he's earned a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a PhD., and he is now the head of a lobbying effort to repeal DADT. Still, he says, he would be eligible to reenlist -- he like many others ejected under the law, was honorably discharged -- and would return to the armed services in a heartbeat.
"Those who left five, 10, 15 years ago have gone on to build lives and careers," he says. "But I know, based on the cadre of veterans who have been out in the last five years, they would absolutely go back. I would put myself in that category."
Nicholson adds that the repeal would likely cause a retroactive administrative change. A "don't ask, don't tell" discharge is currently classified as a legal discharge and not necessarily one that reflects on the individual. The repeal would make it so that veterans could be eligible to return.
"Unless there's something that would make you ineligible, everyone's going to be eligible again," he says.
There are several aspects to lifting the ban on "don't ask, don't tell" that have yet to be figured out.
Defense secretary Robert Gates, who convened the first congressional hearing on repealing the measure with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen on February 2, has said his department will need a year to evaluate the changes involved in repeal, like housing assignments, benefits, and regulating discriminatory behavior. In the meantime soldiers will have to deal individually with the decision on whether to go back.
Choi says that many who had a tough discharge period will have to deal with the "trauma and psychological pain involved with coming back." Nicholson agrees that some who want to return will have those issues, but he thinks they will likely have sorted them out before deciding to reenlist.