Government To Appeal But Not Seek Stay Of Court Ruling That Air Force Must Reinstate ACLU-WA Client Major Margaret Witt
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SEATTLE — 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 American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA) announced today. Maj. 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 Maj. 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 Maj. Witt. After six days of trial, the court found that Maj. Witt's sexual orientation does not negatively impact unit morale or cohesion. Today the government filed an appeal of that ruling, but it is not seeking a stay of the order to reinstate Maj. 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 Maj. Witt. "Wounded personnel have never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me."
In 2008, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Air Force must prove that discharging Maj. 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.
"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," said ACLU-WA Legal Director Sarah Dunne. "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, Maj. Witt was a flight nurse assigned to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma. During her 19-year career in the Air Force, Maj. 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.
Maj. 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, Maj. Witt received another medal for saving the life of a Defense Department employee who collapsed aboard a government chartered flight from Bahrain.
"What the federal court found is what we already know to be true — allowing lesbians and gay men to serve their country honestly and openly does not cause problems in the military," said James Esseks, Director of the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. "In light of that, the administration should cease its senseless defense of this law in the courts, and work with Congress to repeal it once and for all."
From 1997 to 2003, Maj. Witt was in a committed relationship with a civilian woman. In the summer of 2004, Maj. Witt was notified that the Air Force had begun an investigation into an allegation that she had engaged in homosexual conduct. She was placed on unpaid leave and told she could no longer participate in any military duties, pending formal separation proceedings. She was administratively discharged on grounds of homosexual conduct in 2006.
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 Maj. Witt's military colleagues testify that her forced absence has been harmful to her unit's morale.
Representing Maj. Witt are Dunne, Sher Kung, a Perkins Coie Fellow, and ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys James Lobsenz of Carney Badley Spellman and Aaron Caplan of Loyola Law School.