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Obama signs DADT repeal before big, emotional crowd

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President Obama expresses his pride in signing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal in front of an excited group of supporters on Wednesday.

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Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also shared the stage with Obama, other lawmakers and top Pentagon officials. She was one of only two Republicans on a White House list of attending lawmakers, and Obama hailed her for her role in the repeal.

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Before signing the repeal, Obama told the stories of several gay service members who had served with valor in conflicts dating back to World War II. And he expressed hope that "those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who've been discharged under this discriminatory policy will seek to reenlist once the repeal is implemented."

Obama said: "That is why I say to all Americans, gay or straight, who want nothing more than to defend this country in uniform: your country needs you, your country wants you, and we will be honored to welcome you into the ranks of the finest military the world has ever known. . . . We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal."

Obama is scheduled to hold a news conference later in the day if the Senate, as expected, votes to ratify the New START treaty with Russia. Signing the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and seeing the treaty ratified were the president's last two major goals before heading to Hawaii to join the rest of his family on vacation.

In the morning, at least, the attention, and the emotion, were concentrated in the Interior Department's auditorium. Even though the Pentagon says the new policy is still likely months away from being implemented, those who have lobbied for it for years were ready to celebrate.

Obama "delivered on a defining civil rights measure for our country and for gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members who have been silenced for far too long," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, in a statement after the signing. "A measure of dignity has been restored to thousands of service members on active duty, and to over a million gay veterans who served in silence."

But he cautioned that service members "remain at risk under the law" while the repeal is being implemented, and he called on Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to "to use his authority to suspend all 'don't ask, don't tell' investigations and discharges during this limbo period."

On Wednesday morning, the Web site of the Human Rights Campaign proclaimed in a triumphant headline: "DADT on Way to Dustbin of History."

"This day has come!" an elated Mike Almy, an Air Force major discharged four years ago when his sexual orientation became known, told the Associated Press. " 'Don't ask, don't tell' is over, and you no longer have to sacrifice your integrity."

Obama called for repeal of the policy during his White House campaign, and gay rights advocates focused on it as a watershed human rights issue for the administration.

In order to implement the new law, Obama, Gates and Mullen must inform Congress in writing that the military is prepared for implementation and has drafted the necessary policies and regulations. Those changes must not affect troop readiness, cohesion, or military recruitment and retention, according to the law.

Once the written notice is submitted, 60 days must elapse before "don't ask, don't tell" is officially repealed.

wilgorend@washpost.com baconp@washpost.com


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