Image: Autumn Sandeen, Dan Choi, Evelyn Thomas, Jim Pietrangelo II, Larry Whitt, Mara Boyd
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
From left, Petty Officer Autumn Sandeen, Lt. Dan Choi, Cpl. Evelyn Thomas, Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II, Cadet Mara Boyd and Petty Officer Larry Whitt, stand together after they handcuffed themselves to the fence outside the White House during an April 16 protest for gay rights.
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updated 10/15/2010 5:44:31 PM ET 2010-10-15T21:44:31

When word came down of a judge's ruling that gays could serve openly in the military, an Air Force officer received joyous congratulations from a comrade. Realizing there was someone in the room who didn't know his sexual orientation, the officer pretended it was a joke and laughed it off.

He figured it was too soon — and too risky — to celebrate.

On Friday, the Pentagon agreed, warning gay troops that in this "legally uncertain environment," coming out now could have "adverse consequences for themselves or others." The warning came a day after the Obama administration asked a federal judge in California to stay her ruling overturning the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy while the government prepares an appeal.

The Defense Department has said it will comply with the court order for now — freezing any discharge proceedings and technically ending its decades-long policy of discriminating against gays. But it is uncertain what would happen if the court grants the administration's request for a temporary stay on the ruling.

If the court agrees to the stay, it is presumed the military would reinstate the old policy.

Story: U.S. seeks hold on gays in military ruling

"We note for service members that altering their personal conduct in this legally uncertain environment may have adverse consequences for themselves or others should the court's decision be reversed," wrote Clifford Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The Defense Department will continue not to ask service members or recruits about their sexual orientation and to "treat all members with dignity and respect," he wrote.

His memo, released publicly on Friday, was addressed to the civilian chiefs of each military service.

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Senior Pentagon and military officials told NBC News that if gay or lesbian servicemembers voluntarily out themselves while the injunction is in effect, it's "likely" they could then face attempts to force them out of the service if the injunction is overturned.

Like the Air Force officer, many gay service members interviewed by The Associated Press didn't need to ask if it was OK to tell.

"I'm not coming out yet because of the repercussions I might get," said an Army specialist at Fort Bragg, N.C., who, like others reached by the AP, did not want his name used. "I've got a year and a half left ... and I don't want just one day of me coming out to destroy all of what I worked for. I still want my benefits. I still want the military to pay for my college when I get out."

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips ordered the Pentagon to stop enforcing the 17-year-old ban on openly gay troops. The military promised to abide by the order as long as it remains in place, but gay rights advocates cautioned service members to avoid revealing their sexuality in the meantime.

The Air Force officer was at work on his military computer when news of Phillips' ruling flashed up on CNN. A friend who knew his secret ran in and said, "You can come out of the closet now."

"I had to push him out and kind of laugh it off with the other person there in the office," the officer recalled. "It made me really, really nervous at first, because my first thought was, 'Oh, crap. I just was outed, and I know that the policy is probably coming back. What do I do?'"

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For the rest of the day, the officer — co-founder of a support group called OutServe — was worried some other friend might inadvertently say something. He wondered if he should go home until things calmed down.

Then he thought to himself: "This is probably happening across other bases as well."

President Barack Obama has made it clear that he wants the policy to end on his watch. But he wants Congress to make the change, not the courts. And when — or even if — that might happen is unclear. Repeal legislation has passed the House but run into Republican resistance in the Senate.

Under the 1993 law, the military cannot inquire into service members' sexual orientation and punish them for it as long as they keep it to themselves.

Jarrod Chlapowski, co-founder of Servicemembers United, said his office has received dozens of calls from closeted gay military members since Tuesday's ruling.

"We've had people calling us asking us, 'What should I do? Can I come out now?'" said Chlapowski, a former U.S. Army Korean linguist who decided not to re-enlist because of the policy. "All the organizations, including ours, are cautioning service members not to come out of the closet, because everything is still in flux. This injunction could be stayed or not be stayed and it probably will be stayed. We just don't know when."

Even before Phillips issued her order, the Air Force had agreed to delay the discharge of Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach.

An F-15 fighter pilot from Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fehrenbach sued in August to block his discharge. Given his legal challenge, he said he doubts the Air Force will be able to discharge him before his retirement next year, but he wants to see the policy buried for the sake of others.

"Ever since this started in May 2008, ever since my discharge hearing in April 2009, ever since I went public, I've been in the same squadron, doing the same job, with same people, with absolutely no detrimental effect to morale, good order and discipline, or unit cohesion," he said Friday.

"My presence every day here at work proves 'don't ask, don't tell' is obsolete," he said. "I'm living in a post-don't ask-don't tell world already."

Emboldened by the court ruling, Omar Lopez — discharged from the Navy in 2006 after admitting his gay status to his military doctor — walked into an Army recruiting office in Austin, Texas, this week and asked if he could re-enlist. He was up front, even showing the recruiters his Navy discharge papers. He was turned away.

"They just said, 'I can't let you re-enlist because we haven't got anything down from the chain of command,'" Lopez, 29, told the AP in a telephone interview. "They were courteous and apologetic, but they couldn't help me."

Dan Woods, the lead attorney in the Log Cabin Republicans' case that led to the injunction, sent a letter to the Justice Department, suggesting that recruiters who turn away gays could be cited for contempt.

The soldier from Fort Bragg said he believes the ban is on its way out. But until then, he plans to continue "living a lie."

"The day that that does happen, then that's when I'll walk out of the darkness and say, 'This is who I am. I've been serving my country for seven years, and I've done it just fine — being who I am,'" said the 23-year-old, who returned last weekend from a nine-month tour in Iraq. "I just want to shout out to America to open your eyes and know we DO serve America. We DO fight for your freedom."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Timeline: Timeline of 'don't ask, don't tell'

View how U.S. military policy has evolved since 1982, when the Pentagon formalized World War II-era policies banning gays.

Video: Justice Department appeals DADT injunction

  1. Closed captioning of: Justice Department appeals DADT injunction

    >> the battle over don't ask, don't tell policy against gays in the military . the justice department is asking the judge who struck down the policy to stay her order. president obama is against don't ask, don't tell, but wants it to stand at least for now. the president gave his reason why during a town hall we saw on mtv.

    >> this policy will end. it will end on my watch. but i do have an obligation to make sure i'm following some of the rules.

    >> with me now is former air force staff sergeant david hall . he was discharged in 2002 after someone reported he was gay and is calling on president obama to repeal don't ask, don't tell. thank you for joining me. you got a loot of attention for many reasons. recently you were an award show with lady gaga . what did you think of the president's answer at an event there?

    >> the president has said time after time that he wants to get repeal done. he said, you know. i they recall earlier in the year he said he wanted to get it done. we're going to hold him to that promise. he decided to go this rout and bring it to the appeals kourlt. he's making it tough on himself. i hope he does the right thing and gets rid of don't ask, don't tell this year.

    >> the pentagon says it will comply with the court order to stop enforcing don't ask, don't tell. i would imagine you have some gays and lesbians in the military still suspicious about the issue of the pentagon complying, and whether or not they are safe to share who with their colleagues.

    >> they're not safe. they're put in a very dangerous position right now. because right now the pentagon is not enforcing don't ask, don't tell. if they were to come out and then they get to stay, then now don't ask, don't tell is back into play. my advice is don't come out. you should take it don't ask, don't tell is into play.

    >> he is saying, i want to repeal don't ask, don't tell. you'll see this happen under my administration. then you have the layers. all the caveats put in place here.

    >> exactly. it is confusing for a lot of people and especially the service members. there's 65,000 currently serving. they don't know if they can come out or don't come out. my advice to them is don't come out. don't ask like don't ask, don't tell is still in place.

    >> unfortunately, that's what they're going to have to do. they're just too dangerous to come out and not knowing what will happen.

    >> >> david hall , thank you very much. we appreciate you joining me today.

    >> thank you.

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