ACLU Wins Reinstatement For Lesbian Air Force Major Discharged Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
September 24, 2010 5:56 pm
A photo of Maj. Margaret Witt.

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SEATTLE – A U.S. federal court today ruled in favor of Major Margaret Witt, a decorated U.S. Air Force flight nurse who had been dismissed under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy because she is a lesbian, and ordered the U.S. Air Force to reinstate her. After six days of trial, Judge Robert Leighton found that Major Witt’s sexual orientation does not negatively impact unit morale or cohesion. ACLU of Washington attorneys have represented Major Witt since her case began in 2006.

“Today we heard the hammer of justice strike for Major Margaret Witt,” said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington. “We look forward to the day when all members of our 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.”

The first breakthrough in the case came in 2008 when 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.”

“I want to serve my country. I have loved being in the military – my fellow airmen have been my family. I am proud of my career and want to continue doing my job,” said Major Witt. “Wounded people never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me.”

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 even featured on an 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.

“Major Witt’s case exemplifies the baseless nature of the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, which wrongly assumes that gay or lesbian soldiers detract from morale,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The court’s finding today that Major Witt’s sexual orientation did not negatively impact unit morale or cohesion underscores the urgent need for Congress to immediately repeal this law.”

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 a same-sex relationship. 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. In its 2008 ruling, the Court of Appeals emphasized that generalized or hypothetical assertions about the impact of gay and lesbian service members would not be sufficient justifications for discharge.

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, several of Major Witt’s military colleagues testified that her forced absence is harmful to her unit’s morale.

“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 Sarah Dunne, Legal Director for the ACLU of Washington. “America is in a different place and so is the US military.”

Representing Major Witt are Dunne and Sher Kung of the ACLU of Washington, and ACLU of Washington cooperating attorneys James Lobsenz of Carney Badley Spellman and Aaron Caplan of Loyola Law School.

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