Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the legal services group that represented military service members discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” is merging with OutServe, a formerly underground group that has emerged as a leading advocate for troops in the year since the Pentagon lifted the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military.

Combined, leaders of the two groups said they will reach more than 5,000 active-duty, reserve and National Guard troops and a donor network of more than 100,000 supporters.

Leaders said they hope to complete their merger by October and plan to relaunch under a new name.

During the two-year push to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” SLDN and its executive director, Aubrey Sarvis, emerged as one of the leading organizations pushing the Obama administration, lawmakers and the media to support repealing the 16-year ban on gays in uniform. But quietly, through Facebook and secret meetings on military installations around the world, OutServe also quietly lobbied for repealing the policy and began providing support to troops in combat seeking to learn more about the continuing debate in Washington.

Mike Magee, an SLDN board member, called OutServe’s work “an integral part of the fight to repeal” DADT.

“It has become more and more clear that our shared mission — representing actively serving military and veterans, as well as fighting to achieve full LGBT equality in the military — is better accomplished by uniting the two organizations and working together as one on behalf of the brave men and women of our armed forces,” Magee added in a statement.

“This is a great day for both organizations and for the LGBT service members and veterans around the world, who need a strong, unified voice speaking for them at the White House, on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and among the American people,” said Josh Seefried, co-founder and co-director of OutServe. “What began as a simple effort to tell our stories has grown into something we could never have imagined, and today’s announcement that OutServe and SLDN will combine represents the next step in that evolution.”

Though the groups helped secure repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” their work now focuses on convincing Pentagon leaders to grant broader rights and benefits to gay couples, including permitting gay spouses to access military installations and other military benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

But gay leaders say that full benefits and acceptance cannot be secured without first doing away with the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The groups continue to push lawmakers to repeal the law and have supported legal efforts to challenge the law in courts.

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost