April 12, 2006 in City

Air Force reservist fights ouster

Richard Roesler And Amy Cannata Staff writers
 

OLYMPIA – A longtime Air Force reservist from Spokane plans to file suit in federal court today, seeking to stop the military from kicking her out for being a lesbian.

Maj. Margaret H. Witt, a flight nurse with the Air Force Reserve, said in an interview Tuesday night that the service cut off her pay and stopped her from participating in training and missions in November 2004.

“I want the chance to do the job that I trained for, for over half my life,” said Witt, 42. “It’s who I am.”

She and her lawyers plan to detail the lawsuit this morning at a press conference in Seattle. Witt, who works as a Spokane physical therapist in civilian life, said she’s not looking forward to the public limelight.

“I’m a very private person,” she said. “I just want to be an average citizen and do my job.”

She’s been with the Air Force for nearly 19 years, she said, deploying as an operating room nurse in a U.S. military hospital in Germany during Desert Storm and serving as a flight nurse in Oman in 2003. She said she’s assigned to the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, a reservist unit based at McChord Air Force base near Tacoma.

A spokeswoman for the unit said Tuesday night that she was unfamiliar with any such case and was unable to immediately reach other unit officials who might be.

“I would caution you that you only have one side of the story,” said Lt. Col. Anna Sullivan.

At President Bill Clinton’s prompting, the U.S. military in 1994 adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays and lesbians. The change prevented military officials from discharging suspected homosexuals – and barred them from even inquiring about a person’s sexual orientation. But people who acknowledge they’re homosexual can still be booted from service.

From 1994 through the end of fiscal year 2003, according to Department of Defense statistics, 9,500 military members were discharged for being homosexuals. The number of such cases, however, has dropped in recent years. The 653 service members kicked out under the policy in 2004, according to the department, were the fewest in eight years.

Responding to a Government Accountability Office report that the policy strips away critical troops and costs millions of dollars in training replacements, Undersecretary of Defense David S.C. Chu said last year that such discharges make up about 10 percent of unplanned discharges. Far higher, he said, are the numbers of service members discharged for getting pregnant, using drugs, breaking laws or getting fat.

Repeated court challenges to the military policy in the 1990s all failed. But critics of the ban took hope in 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law. In 2004, a dozen ex-military members filed a lawsuit – Cook v. Rumsfeld – challenging the policy. The case is being considered by a U.S. District Court judge in Massachusetts.

Witt said Tuesday that she didn’t want to go into detail about how the military learned she was a lesbian.

“I certainly didn’t tell them,” she said. “Allegations were made, and an investigation was started. I don’t want to get anyone else involved. This is between me and the Air Force now.”

With U.S. forces battling insurgents in Iraq, Witt said, her nursing skills are badly needed. The military’s longtime policy of discharging gays and lesbians “is hurting our military,” she said.

“I’m a flight nurse and an operating room nurse, and those are two pretty busy jobs right now,” she said. “I’m useful to the military. Especially now.”


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