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 OP-ED: What It Will Be Like on the Day After DADT Expires

 OP-ED: What It Will Be Like on the Day After DADT Expires

1airman

On May 19, 2009, I made my first appearance on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show and told my story as a gay airman on national television for the first time. My life changed dramatically that day. But it wasn't for all the reasons I feared.

When I returned to work, uncertain of the reaction I would get from my squadron mates and from friends I had known for years, some for more than a decade, I thought I might get fired. Or maybe I'd be tucked away somewhere until my discharge was finalized.

Even though I had been fighting my discharge (internally) for over a year, almost no one in my squadron or on my base knew there was an investigation or discharge proceeding against me. So I continued to work in the same job, in the same squadron, with the same airmen. I told no one outside my chain of command what was going on. While I was deciding whether to speak out, I knew I might lose lifelong friends or that I might not be able to function anymore in my squadron as such a highly visible spokesman for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

But the day I returned to work after my national coming-out was one of the proudest in my 20-year career. I will never forget donning my uniform that morning and walking to my squadron. After all those years, I have never felt the same overwhelming sense of pride. It hit me: I no longer had to lie, no longer had to hide from anyone, no longer had to look over my shoulder. As I approached the front door to my squadron, I actually felt myself walking taller.

When I opened my email, there were hundreds of messages of support from service members from all branches, all ranks, all over the world. And most poignantly, there were messages from friends who I had flown with in combat, all basically saying, "I don't care about that ... I'd go to war with you any day!"

From my Marine friend (callsign "Sweat") with whom I served as a flight instructor: "It was an absolute pleasure working with you ... and if given the opportunity, I would actively seek to serve with you again. You're a consummate professional who knows how to work hard, play hard and keep our profession's historical lineage burning bright. Take care and best of luck. You're a great American and nothing will or can ever change that! Semper Fidelis!"

From my old roommate in F-15E training (callsign "Flapz") with whom I flew on numerous combat missions over Iraq: "I haven't told you this, but I am proud of you for sticking up for yourself and doing what you are doing. Takes a lot of guts and fight ... that's why I would always want you with me in combat! You're a true warrior and will always be my brother."

Just an hour after I arrived, I went to a meeting with my entire squadron there in attendance. My commander addressed the "media event" (his exact words), and then he went on to say, "This does not change anything. No one should be treated differently. We treat everyone with dignity and respect. Everyone should continue to be professional and dedicated to the mission. Everyone is a valued member of our team." I smiled and thought, I couldn't have said it better myself. He just explained why DADT needs to go. And later that day our first sergeant came into my office and said, "Sir, I just want you to know that I think what you're doing is a great thing. I think -- I know -- you are helping people in this squadron."

During the weeks and months that followed, I continued to receive messages of support, thanks, and congratulations. At first I was somewhat surprised at the overwhelming support from all over. But the more I thought about it, I was less surprised. Because at the end of the day, military people are consummate professionals, supremely disciplined, and dedicated to the mission. Military people value others who they can trust, who work hard, do their job, and love their country. We work with people we don't like and disagree with every day, but we put that aside for the greater good -- for the mission. And in less than 60 days, when DADT is finally just a dark chapter in our history, military people will continue to move on to the next challenge and accomplish the mission -- together. Not much will change for the military as a whole. But as I know firsthand, much will change for gay service members.

At sunset on Sunday, September 4, at the national U.S. Air Force Memorial overlooking Arlington Cemetery, I will retire from the Air Force after 20 years. Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer -- a civil rights hero, one of the first to challenge the gay ban in 1992, who won her case and eventually retired in 1997 -- will officiate the ceremony. I am humbled and honored.

After the sun sets on my career, just two weeks later, on September 21, the sun will rise and a new era will begin. Those service members and thousands more who want to serve will soon do so with their dignity and integrity intact. They will experience the pride that I felt two years earlier, and I could not be happier for them. It seems like a fitting way to end a career I fought to keep, with two proud days and two sunsets I thought I would never see.

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach is a member of the 366th Operations Support Squadron. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network cautions that service members are not advised to come out until after repeal is finalized September 20. They should go to www.sldn.org or call the SLDN hotline for more information.

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