SAN DIEGO – About 200 active-duty troops and veterans wearing T-shirts advertising their branch of service marched Saturday in San Diego's gay pride parade with American flags and rainbow banners, marking what is believed to be the first time a military contingent has participated in such an event in the U.S.
Many of the active-duty troops said they were moved to come out because it is time to end the military's ban on openly gay troops. The march comes a day after a federal appeals court reinstated "don't ask, don't tell" but with a caveat that prevents the government from investigating or penalizing anyone who is openly gay.
National Guard member Nichole Herrera, 31, said she didn't think twice about marching, even though the policy is back on the books. She said she was "choked up" several times as she walked down a main thoroughfare in San Diego, a major Navy port.
"This is one of the proudest days in my life. It's time for it (the policy) to be gone," Herrera said. "I'm a soldier no matter what, regardless of my sexual orientation."
The crowd roared as the group waving military flags and holding placards identifying their military branch walked past the thousands.
Every branch of service was represented Saturday, including the Coast Guard. Marines and sailors ran out carrying their branch's flags over their heads. One Marine stopped to pose with two towering bikini-clad blondes in stiletto-heeled boots.
Onlookers stepped into the parade route to salute them. One man in a rainbow colored shirt waved his feather boa and yelled "Hooah!" the military battle cry.
The national Servicemembers Legal Defense Network — representing gay and lesbian active-duty military personnel — informed organizer Sean Sala that they are warning members that it is still a risk to come out as long as "don't ask, don't tell" is on the books.
Sala, a former Navy operations specialist, said it's time for the gay and lesbian community to stop hiding in fear.
"This is not in any way a violation of military policy and it's time for the country to move on — plain and simple," he said.
Rolling slowly behind the 200 service members was a green half-ton military truck with the banner "Taking pride in our LGBT service men and women." Speakers on the truck blasted out "Taps" and military fight songs.
Miranda LeClair, 30, a former military police officer for the Navy, carried a sign that read: "Proudly served in silence for nine years." She attended with her girlfriend, also a former member of the military police.
"It's been a long time coming," said LeClair, who left the service in November. "This is really an emotional day for me."
LeClair said she was investigated under "don't ask, don't tell" in 2008 but her commanders decided not to pursue discharging her.
Marine Corps officials said service members who are not in uniform are within their rights to participate in a gay pride parade.
The policy has been on and off the books as the Obama administration works to end the law while at the same time fights a court battle because of a lawsuit by the gay rights organization, the Log Cabin Republicans, which sued the Justice Department to stop the policy's enforcement immediately.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a July 6 ruling on the lawsuit, ordered the 17-year policy be immediately halted.
The Department of Justice filed an emergency motion Thursday asking the court to reconsider its order, saying ending the ban now would pre-empt the "orderly process" for rolling back the policy as outlined in the law passed and signed by the president in December.
Late Friday the court temporarily reinstated it, while prohibiting any investigation, penalties or discharges under the rule. The Pentagon said the ban could be lifted within weeks.
"I'm so happy I'm here and I'm able to come out and support not only myself but those who can't be here today," said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Derek Collins, who has served for 11 years.