In late July, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, received a handwritten postcard from overseas, signed “An Army Soldier.”

“I will still be deployed in Afghanistan on 20 Sept., when [don’t ask, don’t tell] is finally repealed,” the soldier wrote. “It will take a huge burden off my shoulders — a combat zone is stressful enough on its own.”

That the soldier had to sign the postcard anonymously to thank her for working to scrap the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Collins said, spoke volumes about what was at stake.

“It is touching,” Collins told the Bangor Daily News on Monday, the afternoon before the repeal of the military policy goes into effect. “It is touching because he took the time to thank me, but it’s also touching that he couldn’t sign his real name. Here this soldier is, serving in Afghanistan. It is I who should be thanking him for his duty. It’s our country who should be thanking him, instead of making him fear that if he’s discovered as gay, he’ll lose his job.”

The repeal of the Clinton-era don’t ask, don’t tell policy takes effect on Tuesday, allowing for the first time openly gay and lesbian individuals to serve in the United States military.

Since 1993, the policy prevented the military from inquiring about its members’ sexual orientations, but if the military discovered by other means that the members were homosexual, those members would be discharged.

On Tuesday night, the Washington, D.C.-based Log Cabin Republicans are slated to honor Collins with the group’s Spirit of Lincoln Award. The Log Cabin Republicans is an organization of Republicans focused on advocating for equality for gays and lesbians.

Collins also has been recognized by the Human Rights Campaign and by Equality Maine, but Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said her work on the issue remains largely unnoticed by the public at large.

Collins and independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut are credited with pushing the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell as a standalone bill in December of last year after partisan gridlock blocked progress of a larger Defense Authorization Act, in which the repeal previously had been a provision.

“To this day, I talk to people who don’t understand how Herculean a task she had in getting this to happen,” Berle, a Portland native, told the Bangor Daily News. “Her role and her achievements have been overlooked, consistently.”

The repeal bill specified that the policy would remain in place until 60 days after the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certified that doing away with the provision would not hurt military readiness. They did so in late July, and Tuesday the policy ends.

Collins called the bill she championed with Lieberman a “breakthrough” in the repeal effort, bringing the issue above the political fray surrounding the larger defense bill.

Berle said Collins spent many nights “burning the midnight oil” meeting with fellow Senate Republicans — such as Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark Kirk of Illinois — to seek votes in support of the repeal.

“I felt strongly that this was a matter of justice and of our country not losing the talents of patriotic Americans wanting to serve,” she told the Bangor Daily News. “It was difficult that my friend, Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.] was on the opposite side fighting passionately about this issue. It represents an historic change for our military and our country. Starting tomorrow, we’ll welcome the service of any qualified individual, regardless of sexual orientation, to put on the uniform and fight for our country.”

The senator credited a letter she received from retired Navy Rear Adm. Charles “Chick” Rauch of Glenburn in 2007 for getting her to actively think about the issue.

“He wrote about serving with sailors under his command who he knew to be gay or lesbian, and he always felt bad they had to hide such essential facts about themselves,” Collins said of the letter.

“Society’s changed,” Rauch said Monday. “A lot of my contemporaries did not like the idea of people who were openly gay serving with them, and in fact probably didn’t even know there were people serving with them who were gay. But we did, and they did good jobs.

“The thing that got to me [at the time of the letter] was that we were having such a hard time recruiting … we were reducing our standards,” he continued. “At the same time, we were eliminating from the service people who were perfectly fine military people who were very talented and interested in serving their country.”

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, another organization advocating for the repeal, claims that 14,500 military members have been fired for being open homosexuals since don’t ask, don’t tell was passed in 1993.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how many of the 14,000 service members who have been fired from the military [for being gay or lesbian] attempt to rejoin the military,” Collins said Monday.

Others, she noted, will simply stay there. The unnamed Army Soldier from the postcard wrote that he’ll repay Collins’ “courage” with “continued professionalism.”

“As of tomorrow, he won’t have to [sign anonymously] anymore,” she said.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.