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Final Settlement to Landmark Lawsuit: Major Witt to Retire with Full Benefits

After Landmark Lawsuit, Maj. Margaret Witt to Retire with Full Benefits

Major Margaret Witt, a decorated flight nurse who had been dismissed under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, has reached a final settlement in her landmark lawsuit, the ACLU of Washington announced today. Major Witt will retire with full benefits, the government will drop its appeal of the federal court ruling in her favor, and the unlawful discharge will be removed from her military service record. The ACLU-WA has represented Major Witt directly since 2006 in a lawsuit challenging her discharge. 

“I am proud to have played a role in bringing about the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I am so pleased that the tens of thousands of lesbians and gays who have served their country honorably will be able to serve openly,” said Major Witt.

On December 22, 2010, President Obama signed legislation passed by Congress repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Major Witt attended the signing ceremony in Washington, DC.

“For the past seven years, I have been fighting for my rights and the rights of other lesbians and gays in the military. I wish I could have spent that time serving with my peers. Now, with the lawsuit completed, I’m ready to start a new chapter in my life,” Major Witt said. She has begun a doctorate program and works as Rehab Coordinator at the Veterans Administration hospital in Spokane.

In 2008 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had 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 became known as the “Witt Standard.”  In September 2010, after a six-day trial, the U.S. District Court in Tacoma found that Major Witt’s sexual orientation does not negatively impact unit morale or cohesion, and ordered the Air Force to reinstate her. 

ACLU-WA Legal Director Sarah Dunne said, “The U.S. military integrated different races and women over the last 50 years.  As we’ve seen over the past six months, the military is now in the process of successfully integrating openly lesbian and gay soldiers. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a failed policy that perpetuated unlawful discrimination for far too long. We are pleased that gay and lesbian U.S. servicemembers no longer have to hide their sexual orientation and compromise their integrity.”

A 1986 graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, Major Margaret Witt was a flight nurse assigned to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma. During her 18-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 the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom and received an Air Medal endorsed by 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.