For Grethe Cammermeyer, the Vietnam combat nurse who came out as a lesbian in 1989 and whose struggle to stay in the military made her famous, the Senate vote brought tears. It's "the relief of finally seeing that we can serve with dignity and with integrity and that people no longer have to lie," she said.
For Wally Kutteles, whose stepson, Army Pfc. Barry Winchell, was bludgeoned to death in 1999 by a fellow soldier after months of harassment and whose death shined a light on gay-bashing in the ranks, the repeal meant the 21-year-old did not die in vain. "It's about time," he said.
For advocates who have worked for decades to overturn the military's ban on homosexuality and then the "wink-wink, nod-nod" Clinton-era compromise that Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stunningly testified undermined the military's "integrity," the importance of the vote could not be understated.
"It is the most significant LGBT civil rights legislation ever passed," said Dixon Osburn, co-founder the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has represented ousted troops since the ban started 17 years ago. Today is his birthday and the vote was "the best birthday present I could have asked for."
The vote "will very likely be a life-changing moment for gay and lesbian troops," said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United and a former Army interrogator who was discharged under the policy.
The repeal will help dispel the hedonistic "myth that gay people are not capable of being patriotic," said Nathaniel Frank, author of "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America." "This victory changes all that and shows how far we've come."
Not Over Yet
Conservative critics of repeal did not answer requests for comment by AOL News. But many had made clear they will punish lawmakers who voted to overturn the ban and warned others their support for gays in the military is a "losing cause."
There was exultation among the former and current service members who looked on from the Senate gallery today as first the measure cleared a procedural hurdle and then was approved to be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Even then, though, "don't ask, don't tell" will remain the law for the estimated 71,000 gays and lesbians now serving.
Once the president signs the bill next week, he, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Mullen, must certify that implementing repeal will maintain military readiness and effectiveness and not harm unit cohesion, recruiting or retention. Repeal becomes effective 60 days later.
If history is a guide, the change is unlikely to go off without a hitch. President Harry Truman ordered the end of segregation in the military in 1948, but racial tensions festered for decades into the Vietnam era. Women still face sexual harassment and other abuse despite serving on the front lines in Afghanistan.
"Until society gets these things right it's not going to be full, equal treatment within the military but something that will evolve over time," said Cammermeyer, who signed up as an Army student nurse in 1961, when married women were not allowed to serve.
The 31-year military veteran, one of the few who have successfully sued for reinstatement after being discharged for their sexual orientation, said military laws against sodomy and other "housekeeping details" must be dealt with as well.
Ripples Beyond the Military
It is difficult to argue with Kevin Naff, editor of the gay Washington Blade newspaper, that there has been "an incredible sea change in the way the culture views this issue from 1993 to today."
Polls show broad public acceptance of openly gay and lesbian military service members. A growing list of Republicans have gotten on board, including eight senators who voted for repeal. And even those who fought hardest against gays in the military have had a change of heart.
Naff recalled how then Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn took reporters on tours of cramped submarines in 1993 to demonstrate why allowing openly gay sailors was a bad idea. Now, amid mainstream media accounts of decorated combat veterans booted for being gay, Nunn says the policy should be overturned.
The impact of today's Senate vote, which comes as the controversial issue of gay marriage moves through the legal system up to the U.S. Supreme Court, is certain to ripple beyond the armed forces.
"This is the linchpin for our movement," said Brad Luna, a former spokesman for the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign who now runs a media consulting firm. "Once you establish that, yes, gays and lesbians have the right to fight and die for their country, it opens up the door for so many other issues," such as marriage, adoption and the extension of federal benefits to same-sex couples.
Gay rights advocates heralded the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004, a move followed by other states. Yet the military repeal marks the first time gays have been granted "federal equality," Luna said.
That sets a precedent for tackling the federal Defense of Marriage Act, another Clinton-era law that allows states to refuse recognition to same-sex relationships legally sanctioned by other states. The Pentagon cites DOMA as a barrier to extending to same-sex couples certain benefits, such as housing allowances, that it gives married military personnel.
With the Democratically controlled 111th Congress on its last legs before a less-friendly Republican House arrives next month, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" may prove the last good bit of legislative news for gay advocates for at least the next two years.
But in the days leading up to today's momentous vote, those who had been in the trenches of combat and the cultural wars paused to reflect on a battle that began in the 1970s when Air Force Tech Sgt. Leonard Matlovich first challenged the ban on gays.
In more recent days, when it looked as if the repeal would fail, some like West Point graduate Dan Choi broke from the stress. But others stuck it out until the mission was accomplished.
For former Air Force Maj. Michael Almy, who recently sued to be reinstated, the vote means he can retire from his second job as an activist -- which included escorting Lady Gaga at the MTV Video Music Awards to raise awareness -- and resume his 13-year military career.
"Repeal," he said, "will mean that gay and lesbian Americans are no longer treated as second-class citizens, unworthy to defend our nation without pretending to be something they are not."