The U.S. Army drummed Pepe Johnson out of the service in 2003, not long after his superiors named him Soldier of the Year at Fort Sill, Okla.
Johnson was gay, and therefore his continued service was unwanted.
But Johnson, now 32, is preparing to re-enter the Army in the hope of becoming an officer. There may still be barriers to that, but his sexuality won't be one of them.
"My goal has always been to return to active duty and be honest at the same time," said Johnson, of Dallas, who works as an oil and gas landman. "I don't think I'm looking to make a statement. I'm trying to be a man of my word and follow through with the dream I've had for years. It's less about me continuing to be an activist and simply about getting back to where I wanted to be.
"But it's a good thing it happened now because I'm not getting any younger," he added.
After 20 years of debate and study, a lot of it emotional, rancorous and loaded with talk of religion and rights, one of the last significant barriers to the military falls today. The "don't ask, don't tell" law disappears, and the armed forces will begin accepting people who are openly gay.
The change could be cataclysmic or barely cause a ripple, depending on who is forecasting and what their position is on gay people serving openly.
Some opponents have predicted that it will hurt recruiting and retention, will damage unit cohesion and will cause conflict in the close-quarters lifestyle of the military. Others, who point to the integration of gay troops in the British, Canadian, Israeli and Australian militaries, contend that the repeal will have very little effect.
Little angst foreseen
Retired Navy Capt. T.D. Smyers, who last served as commander of Naval Air Station Fort Worth, said a number of "complicated issues" remain to be worked out in the implementation of the repeal, particularly in the military justice code. But he foresees little angst within the force, which he said is less concerned with social issues and changes than people believe.
"Truth is, the military is a very professional force," Smyers said. "The only concern of a warfighter is whether the person next to them has their back and will help them get the mission accomplished. That has always been the case."
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Dave Gainer, a longtime board member for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, has campaigned relentlessly for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Gainer, of Forest Hill, said he is mostly feeling a sense of relief.
"We can serve now, and we can serve with honor and pride," he said. "I'm happy."
"Don't ask, don't tell" originated in 1993 as Congress' compromise to then-President Bill Clinton's support for lifting the ban on gays openly serving in the military. The policy allowed gays to serve -- they always have anyway -- but only if no one found out they were homosexual.
More than 14,000 troops were discharged under that law during the past 18 years, including Johnson, who was then a sergeant in an artillery crew.
Support for the law's repeal reached a critical mass in 2010 when both the U.S. House and Senate voted to overturn the measure. President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law late last year. But it's doubtful that it would have been possible without the clear and public support of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Training for changes
Although the military will no longer discharge people for being gay, the changes will not affect benefits. Gay troops will not be eligible for married housing, nor can same-sex partners receive "dependent" benefits as heterosexual spouses do.
The military has been training its people on the changes in law for several months.
Almost everyone in the Air Force Reserve's 301st Fighter Wing, for example, has gone through the training, which was developed by the Defense Department and circulated identically to all units nationwide.
"They wanted to make sure the same information was going out to everyone," said Capt. Mitch Martzen, a judge advocate general lawyer in the wing.
Martzen said the training went well, although he said a reserve unit with members accustomed to gays in the civilian workplace may have played a role.
"A lot of people were receptive to the training, regardless of what they thought of the repeal," he said.
He said he made sure to emphasize that professionalism and respect are key and that no one should receive "disparate treatment" based on their orientation.
Officials at Fort Hood declined to speak about the repeal of the policy.
But several months ago, Col. Mike Shenk, then inspector general of III Corps and Fort Hood, wrote to soldiers in the base newspaper regarding "things to know" about the change.
"Leadership, professionalism, dignity and respect govern our visible and unequivocal support to the repeal of DADT in our uniformed services," Shenk wrote. "III Corps and Fort Hood commanders and supervisors will ensure every soldier and Department of the Army civilian are trained to standard, that all individuals are treated with dignity and respect and that good order and discipline remains ever present in our work environments."
'Overall a nonissue'
Johnson is one of the people with military connections who think that allowing gays to serve openly will be "overall a nonissue." That's part of the reason he wants to rejoin, choosing not to blame the Army for discharging him.
"Specific individuals treated me badly, but a lot of other individuals treated me with respect, guys I served with who stood by me," he said. "I think a lot of people came to realize that 'don't ask, don't tell' was ridiculous. There are plenty of people -- straight people -- in uniform happy to see it disappear."
Citing recurrent issues involving women in the armed forces, Gainer said he is "not naive enough to think there won't be problems."
But he expects far less incidence of harassment and discrimination than some.
"I don't think it's going to be an issue, and I think the system will work," he said. "I think you'll see people conforming, and for the most part, it will be business as usual in units. I don't think there's going to be a big gay pride parade at Dyess Air Force Base with people flying the rainbow flag. You'll just see people who will say, 'Now I'm free to tell you who I am.'"
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547