ACLU Files Suit Challenging Dismissal of Lesbian Major in Air Force

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the Western District of Washington challenging the discharge of a much-decorated major and flight nurse in the U.S. Air Force Reserves on grounds that she has engaged in homosexual conduct. The suit seeks an injunction forbidding her discharge and a declaration that for the military to discharge Witt would violate her rights to engage in private activities without government interference.

“Major Margaret Witt has been an exemplary member of the military with a distinguished record of service. To discharge her simply because of her sexual orientation is unfair and does not make our military stronger,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

“I joined the Air Force because I wanted to serve my country. I have loved being in the military – my fellow airmen have been my family. I am proud of my career and want to continue doing my job,” said Major Witt. “Wounded people never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me there,” she added.

Major Margaret Witt is a flight nurse and operating room nurse assigned to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Washington. During her 18-year career in the Air Force, Major Witt has served in the Persian Gulf, has received many medals and commendations, and has always had superb evaluations from her superiors. In 1993, she was selected to be the “poster child” for the Air Force Nurse Corps recruitment flyer. In 2003, Major Witt was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for her action in saving the life of a Department of Defense employee who had collapsed aboard a government-chartered flight from Bahrain.

From 1997 to 2003, Major Witt was in a committed relationship with another woman, a civilian. In the summer of 2004, Major Witt was notified that the Air Force had begun an investigation into an allegation that she had engaged in homosexual conduct. In November 2004, Major Witt was placed on unpaid leave and told she could no longer participate in any military duties, pending formal separation proceedings. In March 2006, the Air Force informed Major Witt that she was being administratively discharged on grounds of homosexual conduct.

The lawsuit seeks to restrain the Air Force from discharging Major Witt or from otherwise hampering her military career. The military has provided no evidence that her sexual orientation or conduct has caused a problem in the performance of her military duties. To the contrary, the ACLU is submitting declarations from military colleagues that her forced absence is harmful to her unit’s morale.

The Air Force Reserves currently have a critical shortage of flight nurses. At the rank of Major, the Air Force Reserves as of April 4, 2006 had 121 vacancies for flight nurses.

Margaret Witt graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma with a degree in Nursing in 1986 and joined the Air Force the next year. In 1995 she transferred from active duty to reserve duty and was assigned to the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at McChord Air Force Base in Washington. She was promoted to Major in 1999, and as of early 2004 was the Standards and Evaluations Flight Commander, a role giving her management responsibility for over 200 flight nurses and medical technicians. In that capacity, she was named "Officer of the Quarter" for Spring 2003.

ACLU of Washington cooperating attorney James Lobsenz of Carney Badley Spellman is handling the case. In a previous ACLU case, Lobsenz represented Army Sgt. Perry Watkins, who challenged his dismissal from the military for being gay. In 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, as a matter of fairness, the Army could not discharge Watkins.