Major Margaret Witt, a decorated flight nurse who had been dismissed under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, will be able to resume her service with the U.S. Air Force, the ACLU of Washington announced today. 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.” The ACLU-WA has represented Major Witt in a four-year-long lawsuit seeking her reinstatement.
In September, 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. Today the government filed a motion to appeal that ruling, but it is not seeking a stay in the order to reinstate Major Witt.
“I am thrilled to be able to serve in the Air Force again. The men and women in the unit are like family members to me, and I’ve been waiting a long time to rejoin them. Thousands of men and women who are gay and lesbian honorably serve this country in our military. Many people forget that the U.S. military is the most diverse workforce in the world – we are extremely versed in adaptation,” said Major Witt.
“Wounded personnel have never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me,” she 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.”
“We look forward to the day when all members of our military can serve our country without invidious discrimination. To discharge her 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.
ACLU-WA Legal Director Sarah Dunne said, “The U.S. military integrated different races and women over the last 50 years. There is zero evidence to suggest that gay and lesbian soldiers can’t serve openly. The time for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has ended. America is in a different place and so is the U.S. military.”
A 1986 graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, Major Margaret Witt was a flight nurse assigned to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma. During her 19-year career in the Air Force, Major Witt 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.