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Lt. Dan Choi, Gay Millitary Activist On Trial For Protesting DADT Policy, Facing 6 Months In Jail

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DAN CHOI TRIAL
Former Army Lt. Dan Choi, an openly gay Iraq war veteran who protested the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy by handcuffing himself to a White House fence, listens as his lawyer speaks to the media after the start of his trial in Washington, on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011. Choi could face up to six months in jail if convicted. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) | AP

Former Army Lt. Dan Choi is a cheerful, upbeat man. Even over the phone, the crusading gay activist is infectiously enthusiastic and passionate. But he is also very clearly exhausted.

Choi, who made headlines (and lost his job) when he came out on the "Rachel Maddow Show" in 2009, is currently embroiled in a dramatic legal struggle that has taken several twists and turns. The judge will hear final testimony in the case Thursday in Washington, D.C.

The West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran could go to jail for up to six months for protesting the U.S. military's so-called "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy banning gays from serving openly, a policy that was repealed by President Obama in 2011.

Choi's drama started in November of 2010, when DADT was still in full force. Choi, along with 12 other protesters, all shouting "let us serve," chained themselves to the White House fence. Prosecutors chose not to pursue charges against Choi following a similar protest a few months earlier, but this time was different. Choi and the other members of the "White House 13" were informed they would be facing federal charges.

Choi's lawyers have argued that the prosecution, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela George, was unjustly harsh from the beginning. One of his attorneys, Robert Feldman, pointed out in 2011 that protests like this usually result in a simple fine.

"They want him to go away," Feldman said at the time. "He is the gay man who is finally attracting the attention."

In a phone interview with The Huffington Post, Choi said he felt the government was targeting him in order to keep him out of the military.

"This trial is the only reason why I can't re-enlist," Choi said.

Indeed, Choi attempted unsuccessfully to re-enlist in 2011. He said he believes there is a concerted movement among members of the Army top brass to prevent him from rejoining the armed forces, and this trial is part of that general effort. Why else, he asked rhetorically, would the the Department of Justice be using up so much time and money on one man's trial?

Through a website called #Fail2Obey, and a concentrated media campaign, Choi and a group of loyal supporters in D.C. have been raising awareness for Choi's plight among members the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Once a superstar in the LGBT movement, Choi said the past few years have been draining. The 12 other protesters who stood with Choi in 2011 opted to avoid jail time by pleading guilty to the charges brought by the U.S. government; but Choi refused a plea deal. As a result of his ongoing legal battle, Choi said he's had two nervous breakdowns and relationships with friends and family have become strained.

"[The prosecutors] are not used to people fighting back," Choi said. "But I think for gay people it's very important that we break the stereotype, and let the [Department of Justice] know that not all gay people are going to shrivel up and play dead."

A U.S. District Court in 2011 landed a serious blow to Choi's defense when it ruled his attorney could not argue that the prosecution was in any way selective or vindictive. The decision essentially overruled a lower judge's findings that Choi could try to prove "vindictive prosecution." (George told HuffPost she was unable to comment on ongoing cases.)

Ultimately, the trial has served as a surreal role reversal for Choi, who as an infantryman was taught how to put down protests in Iraq.

"It's hard to know that all of a sudden, I'm the terrorist," Choi said. "[In the Army] we called activists very bad names ... and now, I'm them. I've become the other."

Through it all, Choi maintains devotion to the country he once pledged to die for.

"I still love free speech, and I still love America," he insisted. "Those feelings don't go away because you were betrayed."

But, he added, it's getting harder and harder to put his uniform back on.

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