When the U.S. military’s estimated 65,000 gay and lesbian members are finally freed from the fear of being discharged because of their sexual orientation, we hope they appreciate the tenacity and perseverance of Spokane resident Maj. Margaret Witt, who helped defeat the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Witt was a decorated flight nurse based at McChord Air Force Base when she was suspended and then discharged under the military’s anti-gay restriction. She didn’t tell anyone she was in a relationship with a civilian woman, but someone else did. For that reason alone, she was jettisoned.
But Witt fought back, and seven years after she was first suspended she reached a settlement with the Pentagon that expunged the discharge from her record and allowed her to retire with full benefits. Witt had wanted her old job back, but she has decided to move on.
It was her court case that probably drove the final nail into the coffin of the military’s anti-gay policy. President Bill Clinton signed off on “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a compromise between the military’s aggressive purging of gay and lesbian members and allowing them to serve openly. But opponents of the restriction said it still cost at least 13,000 service members their careers.
It just goes to show that when basic human rights are in question, there is no compromise.
Last September, U.S District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ordered Witt’s reinstatement, saying it was up to the Air Force to prove what the anti-gay policy merely assumed. Did discharging Witt advance any military goal? Would her reinstatement damage morale or unit cohesion? In fact, Witt was a highly respected and decorated nurse, and it was her discharge that damaged morale.
With the case on appeal, Congress and President Barack Obama acted to rescind the “don’t ask” policy in December. The law calls for a 60-day assessment period after which the president, defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must certify that the military is ready to implement the repeal. The target date for completion is Oct. 1.
But some members of Congress are hoping to reignite the debate and drag the nation backward. U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., is proposing an amendment to a defense authorization bill that would add the heads of each of the four major branches of service to the certification process. This could be just one of many salvos fired over the summer to stall repeal.
Congress should ignore these distractions, recall the injustices exemplified by Margaret Witt’s case and forever close this dismal human rights chapter.