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DADT on Trial: Maj. Witt's Dismissal "Negatively Impacted the Unit"

Nina Russell-Jenkins,
ACLU of Washington
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September 14, 2010

This week, the ACLU of Washington is before the U.S. District Court in Tacoma representing Maj. Margaret Witt, a decorated U.S. Air Force Flight nurse who was dismissed under the discriminatory and counterproductive policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). This is a dispatch from the trial.

After opening statements, Jim Schaffer, current Spokane Fire Department captain and former member of the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron (Maj. Witt’s squadron), began his testimony. Before retiring from the Air Force in 2006, he and Maj. Witt served on the same flight crew on a number of missions and were deployed together a number of times. Schaffer spoke about Maj. Witt’s stellar career and told stories of how her calm, cool, and collected nature, plus her ability to include all team members, helped their team succeed and save lives. He told of a particular occasion where a Department of Defense civilian went into cardiac arrest while aboard a plane, and Maj. Witt’s ability to accurately assess the situation made sure that the person survived.

He also spoke about the nature and culture of the 446th. Particularly moving was his description of his retirement party: He made sure to invite Maj. Witt to the event, and then used the occasion to provide a send-off for her, complete with signed notes and a photograph from members of her unit. Schaffer made it very clear that Maj. Witt was someone he admired and trusted.

Next up was Jenny Kofpstein, who was discharged 2002 from the Navy under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). Jenny, a decorated Navy Lt. Junior Grade, spent much of her testimony discussing integrity and honesty. After she completed the Naval Academy and served a few years, her inability to talk about her life off-ship became a problem. She spoke of the trust needed to work well as a team. By avoiding routine conversations about weekend activities, partners and dinner plans, she had inadvertently created space between herself and her shipmates.

Knowing that to live with integrity she must tell the truth, Jenny wrote a letter in July of 2000 to her commanding officers, telling them that she was a lesbian. She closed that letter with “I can only live my life openly and honestly. Anything less isn’t fair to the Navy, my family, my peers, my subordinates or to me.”

A current 446th flight nurse, Lt. Col.Vince Oda, was next to testify. Vince comes from a family of service members; his father served as a member of the 477th all-Japanese-American combat brigade in Italy during World War II. During their service together, Maj. Witt and Lt. Col. Oda never spoke directly about her sexual orientation because, as he stated, “it was not important to me.”

Over the years, Lt. Col. Oda began to believe that Maj. Witt was a lesbian — not because she ever said anything, but because of what she didn’t say. As Schaffer had testified previously, Lt. Col. Oda explained flight crew culture as involving close teamwork that gives all participants an intimate look at each other’s lives. Flight crews spend all of their time together. Because Maj. Wittnever spoke about her personal life — her partner, what was happening in her home — Lt. Col. Oda came to assume that Maj. Witt was a lesbian. He stated that Maj. Witt’s dismissal “negatively impacted the unit.”

Since 1993, more than 13,000 service members have been discharged due to their sexual orientation. At least 240 of those service members have been discharged since President Obama took office. The Senate will debate DADT as early as next week. Join the ACLU in urging Congress to act this year to finally end DADT once and for all.