Spokane nurse Margaret Witt had a huge surprise when she got off a flight for a quick day trip to Seattle Tuesday morning. She turned on her cell phone and found an e-mail invitation from the White House.
Was she available to attend President Barack Obama’s signing of the law eliminating “don’t ask, don’t tell” on Wednesday? Please reply by 11 a.m. Eastern.
She looked at her watch. It was 8:02 a.m. Pacific, or two minutes past the deadline. “Oh, no. Am I too late?” she wondered.
Witt is the decorated officer discharged from the Air Force Reserves in 2006 under the law that barred openly gay service members; she was ordered reinstated this fall by a federal judge in what could have been the death knell for the 1993 law if the ruling survived appeal. She was supposed to meet with her attorneys Tuesday, but the attorneys could wait.
Witt quickly typed that she’d be honored to attend if the invitation was still open. Yes, replied the White House. Please come.
She ran from the end of Sea-Tac’s Concourse C to the end of Concourse D, where a plane was in final boarding for Washington’s National Airport. She showed the person at the gate the e-mail from the White House, and asked if there was any chance she could get on the flight. She got the last seat. From Spokane, her partner Laurie McChesney arranged for a hotel room before she landed.
Tuesday evening, she was in Washington, D.C., thankful she had packed an extra outfit for what was supposed to be just a day trip to Seattle.
“I’m so, so honored,” Witt said in a phone interview from her hotel room. “I just wanted to be there to represent all those who are out there doing their job, who can’t be there.”
At 6 a.m. today Pacific time, she’ll join Lt. Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, another Washington state nurse ousted then reinstated under don’t ask don’t tell, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a decorated fighter pilot who is facing discharge, and others for the signing of the law that cleared the Senate over the weekend.
Witt was suspended in 2004 and later discharged after her relationship with a female co-worker in her civilian job was reported to military officials. She sued and was ordered reinstated this fall by U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton after a trial in Tacoma. At her trial, members of her aeromedical evacuation unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord testified that Witt’s sexual orientation didn’t hurt morale or cohesion, but the way she was discharged did.
She recently completed the hours working as a registered nurse needed for her reinstatement and is awaiting word from the Air Force on her next step. Her attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union also are waiting to see if the U.S. Justice Department will drop the appeal now that the law has been repealed and the Pentagon will figure out in 2011 how to allow homosexuals to serve openly.
Tuesday night, she marveled at how much has changed for her and other gay and lesbian members in the military over the past year. Last December, she was gearing up for a trial nine months away, gay service members were still being discharged and although Obama had campaigned on repealing the law, legislation to do that had bogged down in Congress.
“I had faith in what President Obama said, but you’ve got to take everything day-by-day,” Witt said. “I’m so thankful for the vote, and I’m proud of the Senate, proud of the House.”