By Mary Mccarty

Even when it was a fresh wound, Jason Pickart had a very pragmatic description for losing his job under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy:

"It's bad business."

That's what Pickart told me in 2003, shortly after losing his job as a medical technician at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base: "Here we are deploying these hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and the Air Force is discharging an active-duty field medic."

It was bad business, all right. The 20-year-old airman was one of 14,000 active-duty personnel who wanted to serve, but couldn't, because he said the wrong thing to the wrong person. A coworker reported him after Pickart told him he was going home to come out to his father.

It was also bad business in the way that it betrayed American ideals of equality.

"So many of our allies currently allow openly gay service members in their national defense," Pickart noted. "The U.S. is a world leader in a lot of areas, but this is one area where we're not."

That all ended when President Obama formally signed the legislation repealing "don't ask, don't tell."

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, who has lived in the shadow of losing his job for more than two years, sat in the third row for the signing. When they met last year, Obama promised him, "We're going to get it done."

Only a few weeks ago, after the Senate voted the bill down a second time, Fehrenbach wondered if the president could fulfill that promise.

"At the signing the president said a lot of eloquent, moving words, but for me the most emotional moment was when he put down his pen and said, 'This is done,"' said Fehrenbach. "With those simple words, tens of thousands of service members can now serve with dignity and integrity."

By happy coincidence, Pickart was in Washington on business. After the signing ceremony, he ran into Sen. Joe Lieberman and told him, "I was discharged under 'don't ask, don't tell,' and I wanted to thank you for the great work you have done." Lieberman replied, "It should never have happened to you."

It shouldn't have happened to any American. But Pickart, now 28 and living in Owego, N.Y., moved on with his life. He landed a civilian job with the Department of Defense, where, ironically, strongly worded memos are frequently sent out forbidding discrimination for sexual orientation.

"I don't fly a rainbow flag from my desk," Pickart said. "I'm not there to do that; I'm there to do a job. But it's nice to have a conversation about that without fear of reprisal."

He hopes the military will soon have the same standards.

"My guess - and my hope - is that the secretary of defense will place a hold on all current investigations," Pickart said.

It is, he said, "simply good business."

Then, for a moment, this practical, professional young man set aside the businessman in him to rejoice "that no laws in the U.S. prevent somebody from being gay, from being who they are."

It should never have taken so long, or required such herculean effort, but it is truly a moment to celebrate - when countless Americans who defend our freedoms are finally free to be themselves.

Mary McCarty writes for the Dayton Daily News. E-mail her at mmccarty@DaytonDailyNews.com.