December 22nd, 2010
08:19 PM ET
By: CNN Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy
WASHINGTON (CNN) - It wasn't a surprise that a lot of people would want to see President Obama sign the bill repealing the military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, after all the administration moved the event to a nearby auditorium at the Department of the Interior that holds far more people than any room in the White House.
But they may not have anticipated the zeal the crowd brought to the event. "Enlist us now," one audience member yelled as Obama was speaking.
A CNN White House producer who has been to a number of these events said she'd never seen a crowd at a bill signing that was so "upbeat and jovial."
As they waited for the president and his party to take the stage there were smiles, hugs and kisses between people in the audience who have been working for years to get rid of DADT.
"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."
JD Smith is an active duty officer who is also homosexual. He serves as co-director of OutServe, an "underground" network of gays in the military. "It's amazing to be here, it's not only an historic moment for the military, but just for the gay rights movement in general."
Of all the people, including the president, who were applauded by the audience Wednesday, none got a bigger welcome that Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking military officer to support immediate repeal. Not once but twice the crowd gave him a standing ovation punctuated with cheers and shouts of support.
Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva was the first American injured in the war in Iraq. He's been working for years to allow gays to serve openly. "I always knew it would happen. I just didn't know when," Alva said. He stood right behind the president and next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when the bill was signed. "You couldn't ask for a better Christmas gift for everybody. Whether you're for this or not, this isn't just for people in the military. This is a positive step for people of diverse nature of the company."
Ralph Everett is president of Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He sees this moment as history. "Just as my father was in the military back in the 40s, he was in the all-black army and could not serve, I think it's important that everybody be allow to serve."
Lt. Dan Choi, formerly of the U.S. Army, is perhaps the best known opponent of DADT. He was discharged last July under DADT. "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. And to be a part of that is humbling."
Choi has been arrested three times for protesting DADT at the Obama White House. Still he said it was the president who invited him to attend today's 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."
Moments after President 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" and walked out smiling.