'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Repeal Spares Decorated Air Force Aviator

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach stands along the shore of Lake Michgan, Sept. 15, 2011, in Chicago, Illinois.

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach had been one of the highest-ranking and most highly decorated U.S. military service members facing discharge because he’s gay.

Now, with the final repeal of “ don’t ask don’t tell,” the F-15 Strike Eagle weapons officer can complete his two-decade Air Force career with the guarantee of receiving full military retirement benefits when he hangs up his hat at the end of the month.

“When I began this fight, I said it wouldn’t be over for me until it was over for everyone,” said Fehrenbach, who brought one of the many legal challenges against the ban on openly gay service members. “In a lot of ways, today means more to me than my retirement overall.”

The decorated airman, who’s flown dozens of missions during six tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, has spent the past three years grounded at a desk in Idaho while military brass have tried to oust him under the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy.

Fehrenbach challenged the move in court and later won a temporary reprieve in a deal with the Pentagon and Justice departments. But his fate has remained in limbo ever since.

“This definitely took a toll on me, and it made me question some leadership. So, I’m just ready to move on,” he said, explaining his decision to leave the service. “After 20 years, beingin  the closet that long, it’s more of a personal decision to move on with other things in life.”

For many of the thousands of gay and lesbian troops who will continue to serve, the end of the 17-year ban on openly gay service members means a burden lifted — a feeling with which Fehrenbach says he can identify.

“I don’t know how many will come out. Many will want to keep their private lives private just as I had done for 17 years,” he said. “But a lot of people can’t wait to make even just a small gesture, like putting a picture of themselves and their partner on their desk. They’re not going to make a big pronouncement, but they’re not going to hide it anymore. I think the greatest thing is the sense of relief that this burden is off their shoulders.”

As for the challenges that may lie ahead for integration of openly gay and lesbian troops, and the pledge by some 2012 Republican presidential candidates to reinstate the ban, Fehrenbach said he’s confident the military command won’t waver.

“What we saw in changing this law is that we have buy in from senior leadership at the Pentagon,” he said. “The certification said that. For anyone to try and change this, by executive order or otherwise, and put the cork back in the bottle — it is possible, but it won’t be a reality.”