WASHINGTON: As a staff sergeant training to be an Air Force officer, David Hall had a promising career ahead of him until a fellow airman outed him as gay.
Nearly 10 years later, Hall said he hopes to rejoin the military that discharged him when a ban on openly gay and lesbian troops officially expires on Tuesday.
Hall, 37, has already put in phone calls to recruiters and said he will be celebrating on Tuesday that “the country as a whole realized that this was something that needed to go away.”
Years of legal battles and political activism - along with changing social attitudes and open policies among most Nato allies - paved the way for the change, which Congress approved in December.
The American military will note the end of the ban with little fanfare, but for troops who have had to keep their sexual orientation secret or former service members who were expelled, the repeal represents a watershed.
Before a fellow cadet told commanding officers about Hall's “homosexual conduct” in 2002, he was excelling in an officer training program and had been selected for pilot training.
“At that time, I was ranked number one in my class and had a pilot slot,” Hall told AFP.
“I was disappointed. I felt that I had done everything right. I knew I had done everything right.” Though he is eager to return to the Air Force, at age 37, he's now too old to qualify for pilot courses.
“Unfortunately I will not be able to go fly planes just because of my age,” he said. “I realize that, but I'm just happy to go back in and wear the uniform and serve my country doing whatever they want me to do.”
The troops who managed to keep their private life secret say they have lived in constant fear of being found out, and some chose to confess their homosexuality to a trusted few to ease the burden.
“It's a sanity issue,” one member of the Air Force told GQ magazine. “Guys I've flown with for a couple of months, they all know because for my mental sanity I can't handle being this close to these guys and keeping that charade up.
“It's like: How many times can you lie before you go completely nuts?” The “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” law, adopted in 1993, required gay troops to keep their sexual orientation quiet or else face dismissal, and also prohibited service members from asking fellow soldiers if they were gay.
Former president Bill Clinton came into office hoping to lift the ban on gays and lesbians entirely but after facing resistance from military leaders and in Congress, he had to settle for the messy “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” compromise.
An estimated 14,000 troops were expelled from the force under the law.
President Barack Obama promised to scrap the ban as a candidate and made good on his pledge, but he frustrated gay rights groups at times in opting for a methodical approach - asking first for a thorough review of the issue from the military.
Obama's tactic, however, reassured senior officers and pre-empted some criticism.
A pivotal moment came in February 2010, when the US military's top officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, passionately urged an end to the prohibition at a Senate hearing, invoking a moral argument.
“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Mullen said.
“For me, personally, it comes down to integrity - theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”
Though same-sex marriage has so far been rejected by American voters in several states, rights activists see the end of the ban on gay troops as a crucial step towards eventually legalizing gay marriage.
In court, the first legal challenge to banning gays from serving in uniform came in the 1970s, launched by Airman Leonard Matlovich.
On his gravestone are the words he used to describe what he faced: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”