Yesterday morning I woke up with mixed emotions, but the strongest emotion I felt was pride!
I spent two-decades as a service member for the United States Air Force. I dedicated my time and put my life on the line because I am a patriot and believe in what this country stands for. But all the while, I had to keep a secret that could mean the end of a career that I loved.
I was born on an Air Force base and was a military man from the day I was born. I began my career 20 years ago, started flying fighter aircraft three years later, and to say that I was "hooked" would be an understatement. I loved everything about the military: the camaraderie, the adrenaline, and most of all serving my country.
When President Bill Clinton signed Don't Ask Don't Tell in 1993, it was seen as a compromise on both sides. If we didn't talk about our personal lives, if we hid our identities from our peers, then we could serve our country. On paper it sounded simple, but the consequences and long-term side effects were far more difficult to handle.
After the tragic events of September 11, I was chosen to be one of the first alert crews to help protect the cities on the east coast, including our nation's capital. This was soon followed by three combat tours supporting operations in Afghanistan destroying Taliban and al Qaeda targets and then in Iraq taking out key regime elements. After 88 combat missions and over 400 combat hours, I was close to my 20-year mark of service when I was "outted" by a third party. Despite my distinguished record and unblemished career, I knew I was facing the end of my life as I knew it.
My years in the military taught me to fight, and I decided that I had no choice but to fight a law that said I was not worthy of a uniform. I joined the Air Force because I felt I had a patriotic duty to serve my country. I gave everything for my country, and even risked my life on several missions. But in 2009, the Air Force I loved told me that my "continued service was detrimental to good order, discipline, and morale," despite not finding a single person who said being gay impacted my service or my right to defend this great nation. I joined forces with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and challenged my discharge all the way up to the Secretary of the Air Force. To many I was considered "lucky." Instead of being discharged, I was assigned to fly a desk in Idaho to finish out my career.
Now looking back on the last two years and my fight to maintain my honor and personal dignity, this fight was worth it. I fought not only for my honor, but also for the nearly 14,000 soldiers who were discharged unjustly under this law, and the estimated 65,000 who continued to serve in silence and in fear.
Now, with the help of President Obama and his commitment to further equality for the LGBT community, the military is stronger. It is stronger because we are always a stronger people and country when everyone is invited to the table. The repeal was done the right way and now the military will showcase the diversity in this country, and reflect the values that we all fight for.
Today, I find relief and closure as I take a step back to remember all of the gay and lesbian soldiers who currently serve, have served, or have tragically lost their lives fighting for the freedoms this country's established. Their service is legitimate and they will no longer serve in vain. Today, gay service members will do their duty with their honor, dignity, and integrity intact. It is truly a proud day!
Victor Fehrenbach is an active duty lieutenant colonel serving in the United States Air Force. A decorated aviator, with three combat tours and 88 combat missions in Iraq and Afganistan, Lt. Col. Fehrenbach, has received nine Air Medals for distinguished service.