PORTLAND – U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was approached at a reception Friday by several veterans who were eager to thank her for her role in helping to repeal the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, which banned openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving.

Collins said their gratitude was misplaced.

“It is I who thank them for serving our country,” said Collins.

The Maine Republican made her remarks as the guest of honor at EqualityMaine’s celebration of the repeal of the policy, one of the events in the 25th Southern Maine Pride Week.

Collins offered a behind-the-scenes look at the steps that led to the repeal in December. She told a crowd of about 125 people that the repeal effort also offered several lessons.

She said it started with a letter from a retired admiral who lamented his failure to take on the cause of repealing the policy and urged her not to do the same. That led her to co-sponsor the repeal with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

“One well-written letter really can have an influence,” said Collins.

She said a vote for the repeal by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., surprised her and taught her another lesson: “Never stereotype.”

Some people at the reception said they wanted to thank Collins for her perseverance.

“When legislators put their necks out for a cause, it is important for those of us who have been in the cause to thank them,” said Heidi Vierthaler of Freeport.

Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, a former Lewiston police chief, said he has been involved in seeking equal rights for minority communities since the early 1990s, when he served on a task force to draw up an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Although voters ultimately rejected the ordinance, he said, it forever opened the eyes of his family.

“My wife and I and the whole family were able to see there was discrimination, and that should not happen today in America,” said Gilbert.

Alicia Barnes of Waterville, a Navy veteran who spent her time in the service hiding her sexual orientation, expressed her gratitude to Collins by presenting the senator with one of her ship’s coins, which are awarded to Navy personnel for exceeding duty requirements.

“You don’t give them easily. I have only two left,” said Barnes.

Jon Revere of Ogunquit said he wanted to show Collins his support and admiration.

“Sen. Collins is thoughtful and is filling the high heels of Margaret Chase Smith wonderfully,” said Revere, 80, a lifelong independent voter.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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