09/20/2011 05:54 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2011

Gays in military relieved by end of policy

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - For U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Captain Sarah Pezzat, the end on Tuesday of the policy banning gays from serving openly in the U.S. military means she and her partner can now get married.

After years of inventing boyfriends or telling colleagues she lived alone, the Pentagon logistics officer and Naval Academy graduate said she will walk down the aisle in uniform next month and cut her wedding cake with a sword.

The repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is "a happy moment," Pezzat, 31, told Reuters.

"Try and spend one day at work and not talk about what you did at home or the discussion you had with your significant other," she said. "It's very hard."

The repeal went into effect on Tuesday, ushering in a new era in the U.S. armed forces.

The law had allowed gay men and women to serve in the military only if they kept their sexual orientation a secret. They faced the threat of being kicked out of the military if they were open about their homosexuality.

Under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, more than 14,500 U.S. service members were thrown out of the military since it went into effect in 1993, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. (See graphic

Gay active-duty military service members celebrated the repeal of the policy.

The end of the policy "is a big deal if you're to the point that you lose your job over it," said Jonathan Hopkins, a 32-year-old West Point graduate and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hopkins said he was honorably discharged from the Army in August 2010 after a months-long investigation into his sexuality.

"Ultimately I admitted that I was gay," he said. "It was the worst part of my life, as it is with all the people who have sacrificed a major part of their lives to have a relationship and to serve their country. Their relationship ends up being with the military and not with another person."

Last week, two Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Buck McKeon of California sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asking the Pentagon to delay the official repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

They said the House Armed Services Committee had not been provided with details on the new regulations that reverse the policy.

But Pentagon officials said they were prepared for the repeal and have spent months educating military personnel on how to manage the change.

"This is years in the making," Pezzat said. "I feel like I'm welcomed completely into the military family now as opposed to only halfway."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)