Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach has flown on dozens of combat missions over Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo as an F-15E Strike Eagle weapons officer. His commanders have called him a "war hero," "superstar" and "#1 officer/aviator."
But for the past two and a half years, the decorated airman has been grounded at a desk job in Idaho while military brass have sought to oust him under the "don't ask don't tell" policy.
Now, with President Obama poised to sign into law a repeal of the policy on Wednesday, ending the ban on openly gay troops, Fehrenbach and dozens of service members under investigation or with discharges pending could soon be in the clear and free to resume the careers they love.
"I'm just incredibly proud of our country and of this military that so many service members will be able to serve with dignity and integrity," said Feherenbach, 41, the highest-ranking officer investigated under the policy. "It's actually taken a day or two to sink in, because it seemed so unbelievable at the time."
Officials say the 17-year-old policy will remain in effect in the near term, however, until the president, Defense Secretary and Congress certify that the military is ready to implement a repeal. Then, a 60-day waiting period begins before the ban is officially removed from the books.
While it's unclear how vigorously the ban will be enforced during that time, Feherenbach said there are already signs officials are aggressively pursuing the change.
"I just received an email from my commander, and I understand that the Air Force Chief of Staff has sent out a note that said we're going to do this, we're going to follow the law, we're going to be professionals as we always have and we're going to respect each other," he said.
In the weeks ahead the Pentagon is expected to revise policies and regulations to reflect the repeal, and train leaders on how to enforce the rules. More than 2 million service members across the military are also expected to be briefed on what is expected of them and what is not.
"The implementation plan lays out an ambitious agenda of things that need to be done," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week. "How long that would take, frankly, I don't know."
Among the expected changes is non-discrimination against a military applicant who may volunteer that he or she is gay, opening the door to the return of thousands of service members whose careers were cut short after they were outed on the job.
"I just really miss it. I miss the people, the mission, the comraderie. I can't wait to get back in there and finish my career," said Mike Almy, an Air Force Major and 13-year veteran who was discharged four years ago after investigators learned he was gay through personal emails. He plans to re-enlist.
Gay Vets to Re-Enlist as Role Models
Nobody knows for sure how many of the estimated 14,000 gays and lesbians discharged because of their sexual orientation will want to re-enlist or still meet the requirements for active duty, including age and fitness levels.
But some advocates estimate up to a quarter of those discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" could return to the force.
"We expect that all who are otherwise qualified will be allowed to rejoin and at least pick up their careers where they left off," said Aaron Tax, legal director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, who said many gay veterans were interested in continuing to work toward 20 years of service to earn valuable military retirement benefits.
Jason Knight, discharged after five years as a Navy Hebrew linguist, said he plans to re-enlist as soon as he can because there is such high demand for interpreters and intelligence analysts.
"Linguists have the highest security clearance and are essential in deciphering foreign intelligence," he said. "And anecdotally at least, they are the biggest field hit by 'don't ask, don't tell' next to pilots and medics... I'm going back to reach my 20 years of service and retire."
An estimated 800 mission-critical troops, including at least 59 Arabic and nine Farsi linguists, have been fired for being openly gay between 2003 and 2008, according to estimates provided by the Pentagon to SLDN.
Almy, who has been working as a private defense contractor, said the most compelling reason for his re-enlistment, however, is the military's need for role models.
"The military is going to need positive examples, positive role models of gays and lesbians serving openly," he said. "One of the reasons there has been so much obstruction and opposition to repeal… is fear of the unknown, because gays and lesbians can't serve openly and there are no examples out there."
"I encourage all those discharged who can to go back in. It's part of service, and that's what I'm going to do."