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Air Force Major Dismissed Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Looks Ahead to Rejoining the Military

Major Margaret Witt, a decorated flight nurse who was dismissed under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2006, spoke today about her eagerness to rejoin the U.S. Air Force. When reinstated, Major Witt will become the first openly gay person to serve in the military due to a court order under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As Congress prepares to hold hearings on the policy, Major Witt spoke today at a press conference at the office of the ACLU of Washington, which has represented her in a four-year-long lawsuit seeking her reinstatement.   

“I’m ready to return to my unit, and I am very much looking forward to flying with them again. I served my country honorably for more than 18 years, and then suddenly I was considered unacceptable because of whom I love. That made no sense to me,” said Major Witt. “I’ve made valuable contributions to the Air Force throughout my career, and I still have skills to offer. All I’ve ever wanted to do was help our troops when they need it and work with my fellow medics.”

“There are tens of thousands of good people serving in the military today who are forced to lie about who they are – and to feel shame about lying – because of this policy. I hope the day comes soon when everyone can serve openly and honorably, and no one will be treated like a second-class citizen,” Major Witt added.

In 2008 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Air Force must prove that discharging Major Witt is necessary for purposes of military readiness.  Although the ruling left in place the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, it sent the case back to the trial court saying that before discharging a soldier under the policy, the military must prove that the individual’s conduct actually hurts morale and unit cohesion.  This requirement is now known as the “Witt Standard.” 

In September 2010, the U.S. District Court for Western Washington ordered the Air Force to reinstate Major Witt. After six days of trial, the Court found that Major Witt’s sexual orientation does not negatively impact unit moral or cohesion. Last week the government filed a motion to appeal that ruling but did not seek a stay in the order to reinstate Major Witt, and it is unlikely they will do so.

“We are working for the day to come soon when all members of the military can serve our country without invidious discrimination. To discharge Major Witt simply because of her sexual orientation was entirely unfair to her and unwise for the military, which needs her significant skills,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

A 1986 graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, Major Margaret Witt was a flight nurse assigned to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma. During her career in the Air Force, Major Witt has served in the Persian Gulf, received many medals and commendations, and 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.

Major Witt served in Oman during Operation Enduring Freedom and received a medal from President Bush, who noted that she had delivered “outstanding medical care” to injured service members and that her “outstanding aerial accomplishments …  reflect great credit upon herself and the United States Air Force.”  In 2003, Major Witt received another medal for saving the life of a Defense Department employee who 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 following month, the ACLU filed papers for Major Witt challenging the discharge and seeking her reinstatement.

The military 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 had several of Major Witt’s military colleagues testify that her forced absence has been harmful to her unit’s morale.

Representing Major Witt are ACLU-WA Legal Director Sarah Dunne and Sher Kung, a Perkins Coie Fellow, and ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys James Lobsenz of Carney Badley Spellman and Aaron Caplan of Loyola Law School.

In a previous military case, the ACLU-WA and Lobsenz represented Army Sgt. Perry Watkins, who was dismissed in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan decided no homosexuals could serve in the military.  In 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, as a matter of basic fairness, the Army could not discharge Watkins since the military had known he was gay when they drafted him in 1968.