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Jovial crowd cheers the signing of 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
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War vet: 'Don't ask' repeal 'amazing'
  • Longtime opponents of "don't ask, don't tell" celebrated together
  • "Enlist us now," one person yelled as President Obama spoke
  • Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen got two standing ovations from the crowd

Washington (CNN) -- Everyone knew a lot of people would want to see President Barack Obama sign the bill repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring openly gay and lesbian soldiers from the military.

After all, the administration moved Wednesday's event to an auditorium at the Department of the Interior that holds far more people than any room in the White House. What might not have been anticipated was the zeal of the crowd gathered to witness the end of a 17-year policy that forced gay and lesbian military members to hide their sexuality.

"Enlist us now," one audience member yelled as Obama was speaking. Beaming audience members who have been working for years to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell" hugged and kissed each other in celebration.

"I wouldn't have missed this for anything," said Kathi Westcott, who until recently worked as a lawyer for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group that helped gays accused of violating the policy. "I'm thrilled that we were able to make it through."

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The loudest applause was for Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest ranking military officer to support the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He received two standing ovations punctuated with cheers and shouts of support.

Standing behind Obama and next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the bill-signing was retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first American injured in the war in Iraq. Alva has been working for years to allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly.

"I always knew it would happen. I just didn't know when," Alva said. "You couldn't ask for a better Christmas gift for everybody."

Dan Choi, formerly a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, is one of the best-known officers discharged under "don't ask, don't tell."

"It's important for me personally to be here because it's the first time Congress has ever validated the full personhood of a gay American," Choi said. "And to be a part of that is humbling."

Obama campaigned on a pledge to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Since Obama's election, Choi has been arrested three times for protesting at the White House against the policy. He said Wednesday that the president invited him to the signing ceremony.

"I honestly didn't expect to be here, after everything I've done, but the president is very generous and gracious to invite those who have so loudly held him accountable," Choi said.

Moments after Obama signed the bill and announced "it's done," a man in the audience stood up, gathered his coat and said to no one in particular, "It's about damn time," before walking out as he smiled.