May 11, 2011 in City

Military gay ban litigant retires

Pact clears Witt’s service record
By The Spokesman-Review
Associated Press photo

Air Force Maj. Margaret Witt, right, stands with her partner, Laurie McChesney, as they talk to reporters Tuesday in Seattle about Witt’s retirement.
(Full-size photo)

Maj. Margaret Witt, a Spokane nurse who won a major legal battle against the Pentagon in the campaign against “don’t ask, don’t tell,” will not return to uniform and her unit. Instead, she’ll retire with full benefits and with an unlawful discharge wiped from her service records.

Witt, a decorated flight nurse who became a beacon for those fighting for the rights of homosexuals to serve openly in the military, announced Tuesday that she has reached a settlement with the military. She will retire and “move forward” with her life, working on a doctorate in physical therapy. The military will drop its appeal of last fall’s landmark decision that she was improperly discharged under the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“I did fight hard for almost seven years,” Witt said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Every minute of it was worth it … but we made a family decision to move forward.”

Witt never told her Air Force Reserve commanders she was a lesbian; they began an investigation after the Pentagon received a complaint that she was in a relationship with a married co-worker at her civilian job.

The 18-year veteran who was once featured in a recruiting brochure for Air Force flight nurses appealed the discharge, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Air Force would have to show that keeping her in the 446th was bad for that unit’s morale and readiness. The Air Force had claimed it was bad for the service as a whole.

That narrowing of the application for readiness and morale as a basis for discharge under “don’t ask, don’t tell” became known as the Witt standard.

At a trial in Tacoma last year, members of her unit testified that while some of them knew she was a lesbian, that wasn’t a problem. It was the way that she was dismissed that hurt unit morale and readiness, they said.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled that she had been improperly discharged, and ordered her returned to service as soon as she met work qualifications.

She was in the middle of completing some 180 hours of nursing for recertification when Congress passed a law rescinding “don’t ask, don’t tell” as soon the military can prepare for it. She traveled to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signing of the law.

“I don’t begin to know what made up their decision (to pass the law),” she said. “I’ve heard people say the ‘Witt standard’ helped push through the repeal.”

After she completed her nursing hours, she was told she’d have to wait until the military finished all the changes they were making for homosexuals to serve openly. At that point she had enrolled in a doctoral program for physical therapy and decided it was time to concentrate on that and continue working at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“I get to serve my extended military family, just in another capacity,” she said.

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