WASHINGTON — Flanked by other senators at a Capitol Hill news conference who also helped repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law and by three service members able to now appear without fear of repercussion as openly gay soldiers, Sen. Susan Collins held a postcard aloft that she says helps drive home the significance of the historic day.

Dated July 26, 2011, and sent to Collins at her Senate office, the postcard had a photo of combat soldiers serving in Afghanistan on the front, and a note to the Maine Republican on the back.

“I will still be deployed in Afghanistan on 20 Sept. when DADT is finally repealed,” the note begins. “It will take a huge burden off my shoulders – a combat zone is stressful enough on its own. Thank you for your courage to vote in favor of repeal as a Republican. I will repay your courage with my continued professionalism.”

The postcard was signed just: “An Army Soldier,” because in July the 18-year-old legal ban on gay and lesbian service members serving openly remained in place.

But as of 12:01 a.m. today, Collins said at the news conference held to mark the occasion of the effective date in the military of the repeal, that soldier “can sign his name and that makes all the difference. Today represents an historic change for our country and for our military,” Collins said.

Collins was a leading advocate of repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and one of eight Republicans – including Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine – to break with their party and vote for the repeal in the Senate in December. Collins and Snowe were among just six Republicans who voted for a procedural motion whose passage was needed before the final vote on the repeal could be held.

Collins was the only Republican among a half-dozen senators appearing at the news conference. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado credited Collins with “immense courage and strength” in pushing for the repeal.

Collins “brought many in her party along,” Udall said of his fellow Senate Armed Services Committee member.

Also today, Collins was singled out by the gay advocacy group Log Cabin Republicans for its “Spirit of Lincoln Award” during the organization’s national dinner in Washington.

Military leaders have said the repeal will not get in the way of military recruiting or interfere with the ability of troops to function in a war zone.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., another architect of the repeal, called today a “real celebration of historic accomplishment for our country.”

At the news conference, Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan Mills of Florida took to the podium to proclaim that he is “extremely grateful and relieved” to be able to stop hiding his sexual orientation from other soldiers and his commanding officers.

He and the two other soldiers who attended the news conference said they have received no indication that other service members have a problem serving with openly gay comrades.

And Sarah Pezzat of Michigan, who left active duty in 2007 and joined the Marine Corps Reserve because she was tired of leading a “double life,” stood up at the news conference to proclaim in an emotional voice: “I am 31, I am a woman, I am a U.S. Marine and I am a lesbian.”

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected] Twitter: Twitter.com/MaineTodayDC.