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Veterans, local advocates weigh in on first day without 'don't ask, don't tell'

"Don't ask, don't tell" ends

The "don't ask, don't tell" law was signed in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton. It ended at midnight Tuesday. (WRDW-TV / Sept. 20, 2011)

News 12 First at Five / Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's a bill that went into effect in the early 1990s, forcing thousands of men and women in the military to hide their sexual orientation or be kicked out. Now, they no longer have to be afraid.

President Obama congratulated Congress for repealing "don't ask, don't tell." The law was signed in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton ended at midnight. Tuesday the senators who led the fight to repeal it were joined by three service members who were finally able to admit they were gay without fear.

Although he wasn't in office when the bill was passed, the new secretary of defense says Congress made the right decision.

"They are men and women who put there lives on the line and that's what should matter most," said Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta.

There are an estimated 70,000 gay and lesbian members of the military and some of them are serving at Fort Gordon.

For some veterans it was just an unspoken rule -- for more recent soldiers, it was a law keeping them from serving openly, but either way things changed Tuesday.

Retired Sgt. First Class Ron Maher served 22 years in the military. There was no such thing as "don't ask, don't tell" in Vietnam, but he and most his VFW post supported getting rid of it.

"If they served honorably, if they did not disgrace their uniform or their service ... who cares? I couldn't care less what their sexual orientation is and I believe I speak for most of the members here," Maher said.

As of now, the 18-year-old law forcing military members to hide their sexual orientation is gone.

"We need to change and this I think is a welcome change," Maher said.

Chris Bannochie with Augusta Pride says there are a lot of gay and lesbian troops at Fort Gordon.

"With a base as large as Fort Gordon, there's always going to be a large number of gay and lesbian troops," Bannochie said.

He calls today a step toward ending discrimination.

"It's a day that a lot of people have been waiting for for a lot of years and it's a day of pride. They can be truthful about who they are instead of having to lie," Bannochie said. "It's a day for them to finally be honest to all their co-workers."

Soldiers across the country have been applauding the policy change. Some even celebrated with a wedding in Vermont.

"It's an indescribable feeling when you think ... finally, we can just be like everybody else," said Navy Lieutenant Gary Ross after marrying his longtime partner.

"Outserve" is a military magazine for gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgendered service members. It published its first "repeal" issue. In it are 101 men and women who are stepping out from the shadows.

"It's not that they're trying to flaunt it, they're just trying to be who they are," explains Bannochie.

And Maher stands by their decision to stand up and be themselves.

"I couldn't care less," he said. "They did their job, let it be."

About 14,000 men and women have been discharged from the military since the law took effect. Some of them now have the chance to be reinstated, if they want to be.

The military has spent the last few months training personnel for the repeal. All pending investigations into sexual orientation have been dismissed.

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