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Discharged gay sailor re-enlists in Navy Reserves

By Jennifer Rizzo, CNN National Security Producer
updated 11:12 PM EDT, Sat September 24, 2011
Jeremy Johnson became one of the first don't ask, don't tell
Jeremy Johnson became one of the first don't ask, don't tell" dischargees to re-enlist on Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "It felt like just another day at work," Jeremy Johnson says
  • He is sworn in by same officer who received letter saying he was gay
  • Navy petty officer first class was discharged in 2007

Baltimore (CNN) -- On a cloudy Saturday morning in Baltimore, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" became a reality for one of the hundreds of discharged military personnel planning to re-enlist.

Jeremy Johnson, a former Navy petty officer first class, rose his right hand and swore an oath to the Navy Reserves, becoming one of the first people to re-enlist after being discharged under the law preventing openly gay and lesbian personnel from serving in the military.

"The whole ceremony felt very comfortable. It felt like it all came together," Johnson said.

Surrounded by mostly veteran friends, Johnson said the ceremony was less emotional than he expected.

"It was what it should be. It felt like just another day at work," he said. "It wasn't a big deal, because it should never have been a big deal to begin with."

The 34-year-old was discharged from the Navy in 2007 after sending a letter to his commanding officer admitting he was gay, essentially outing himself.

"'Don't ask, don't tell'" was something that I was kind of able to compartmentalize at the beginning of my career, Johnson told CNN's Chris Lawrence in a previous interview.

But that changed when he started believing in the Navy's core values of "honor, courage and commitment," he said.

"It wasn't something that I wanted to do," Johnson said. "It was something that deep down I felt I was forced to do in order to kind of maintain my sanity and stop myself from having to compartmentalize my life, be true to who I was and be a successful human being, rather than just being a successful sailor."

With that letter Johnson was sure he had given up any chance of ever returning to the military. Even with the repeal signed by President Barack Obama, Johnson said he remained cautious.

"I had been following the process of the 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal bill, and when it was finally signed, I still maintained a little bit of healthy skepticism about when and where that might happen," Johnson said.

"So my real moment of this is going to happen came when we finally got the word that certification had been signed, and I could tell you, it's surreal," he said.

Johnson was sworn in on Saturday by the same commanding officer who received his coming-out letter. The now-retired officer encouraged Johnson at the time to work to get "don't ask, don't tell" repealed.

"Call it healing. Call it closing the circle. There's something poetic and appropriate in it and I'm honored to have him here," Johnson said in prepared remarks at the ceremony.

Looking ahead, Johnson says he should be assigned a unit in the next two or three months and is preparing for the changes in the Navy that come with a four-year absence.

"I know that the military is constantly changing. I know that the place that I'm getting ready to go back into is not the same place I left. And it does make me a little bit nervous, but I'm excited nonetheless," he said.

But that's where the worry stops. When it comes to serving as an openly gay man, Johnson said he isn't concerned.

"There are going to be people who are bothered by it, but I think, by and large, it won't be an issue," he said.

Gay men and lesbians currently in the military can now serve without the fear of losing their jobs, he said.

"It's never been a question of whether the closet door was going to come flying open for people. It's a question of whether or not people can serve without worrying about what happens if somebody opens the closet door on them and exposes them. Will they be fired? That's no longer an issue," Johnson said.

"For the people that I've worked with ... They don't wanna come out? They don't have to. If they get exposed, it has no consequence because they can just continue to serve."

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