"It's a big step for the military."

David Sanders/Arizona Daily Star

For years, David Bolden of Tucson served a country that forced him to stay in the closet.

Now the closet doors are about to burst open, and the former soldier is pondering a future that once seemed impossible.

At local military bases and recruiting stations and in private households like Bolden's, preparations are under way for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the federal law that forced gay troops to hide their sexual orientations as the price of wearing a uniform.

The countdown to change began last week when the president and Pentagon leaders certified to Congress it would not harm military readiness.

The 17-year-old law comes off the books Sept. 20, putting America in the company of many allies who made the same change years ago.

Those in Bolden's position now find themselves standing at a crossroads of history.

"I actually didn't believe it would happen," he said of repeal. "When I heard it passed, I was floored."

"It's a big step for the military to publicly acknowledge that being gay does not affect your ability to do the job," said Bolden, 28, who was an Army signals analyst from 2003 to 2008.

"I loved the military. I miss it," he said. "People who have worn the uniform know: It's not just a job. It's the camaraderie, the structure. It becomes part of who you are."

Bolden said he didn't know he was gay when he enlisted as a teen.

He married a female soldier and tried to force himself to feel content, even as he began to realize he wasn't attracted to women.

But his inner turmoil took a toll. He developed symptoms of severe depression, he said, and received a medical discharge.

"I had to choose between my career and my health," he recalled. "I couldn't stay in a situation where I wasn't allowed to be who I am."

Now Bolden is pursuing a degree in psychology and works in the mental-health-care field. He hopes to become an officer in the military mental health system.

How repeal will unfold within the ranks remains to be seen.

Some national conservative groups warn it will alienate some recruits and existing troops: especially chaplains who could feel compromised having to minister to gay troops if their religions are not accepting of gays.

Local military leaders, though, are predicting a smooth transition.

"Quite honestly, I don't expect any problems," said Col. John Cherrey, who oversees more than 6,500 airmen as wing commander at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

"The feedback I'm getting is that (the training) is being very well-received."

Air Force lawyer Maj. Greg Thompson, deputy staff judge advocate at D-M, agreed.

"I haven't heard of any resistance," from chaplains or anyone else, Thompson said. "There may be some who have personal views either way on this issue. But we execute the laws of our nation regardless of personal views."

Over the last few months, D-M personnel of all ranks had hourlong training sessions to teach them what to expect after repeal.

In a nutshell, it's business as usual, the training materials say. The only difference is there will be no difference between straight troops and those who are gay, lesbian or bisexual.

They'll share the same bathrooms and living quarters, be bound by the same military laws and face the same consequences for unprofessional or criminal conduct.

Outside of work, though, only straight marriages will be recognized by the military, since federal law doesn't allow for same-sex unions.

One question raised in D-M training material is whether troops can quit the military if they don't like the switch to openly gay service.

No way, commanders said.

Service members already set aside all sorts of differences - political, cultural or religious - to work together effectively, and the same is expected on this issue.

Linda Thomas of Tucson, a retired Air Force colonel who is lesbian, reviewed D-M's training materials for the Star and said she found the contents "reassuring." The service seems to be handling repeal matter-of-factly, like any other rule change, said Thomas, who served 22 years and retired in 2007.

"The troops know who is gay and who isn't," said Thomas, who now is active in Wingspan, Tucson's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center. "Most troops, especially those under 40, just don't care."

Vern Pall, a past president of the Tucson chapter of Military Officers Association of America, said he'll be glad to see the last of a decades-old charade.

"I flew with gay pilots, gay navigators, gay flight engineers and a whole host of medical technicians and nurses," said Pall, a retired Air Force major and navigator in C-141 transport planes and F-4 Phantom fighters during the Vietnam War.

"On air evac missions out of Vietnam, with 60 or 70 (wounded) troops on stretchers in the cargo compartment, if we started to lose one we didn't care if a straight med tech or a gay or lesbian med tech responded."

At Fort Huachuca, about 75 miles southeast of Tucson, the Army is nearly done training thousands of local soldiers and civilians for repeal. "The bottom line is that regardless of anyone's personal or religious views, we will treat all members of the Army family with dignity and respect," said fort spokeswoman Tanja Linton.

Bolden, who once trained at the fort, hopes things do go smoothly. But he won't be surprised if there are bumps. "Sometimes," he said, "when change happens, certain people don't get it."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

On StarNet: View slide show that D-M is using to prepare local airmen to serve with openly gay colleagues at azstarnet.com/pdf