Margaret Witt and her partner, Laurie McChesney, knew the Washington Senate would vote on same-sex marriage at 6 p.m. sharp Wednesday, so they made certain to be in front of the television in their South Hill home.
For Witt and McChesney, this issue looms as the next hurdle in the battle for the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans. Witt, the U.S. Air Force Reserve nurse who was discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” gained national prominence as she fought a long court case against that decision. Her inspiring story, her appealing personality and her warm smile put an all-American face on the injustice of a cold military policy.
In the end, Witt helped make history. In December 2010, Witt flew to Washington, D.C., to watch President Barack Obama sign the policy’s repeal. In May, Witt’s case against the Air Force was settled, and she was retired from the Air Force Reserves with 20 years of service.
“It was like all the cosmos aligned,” Witt said in a recent interview. “I’m humbled and proud to have been a part of it.”
After closely guarding her privacy for most of her adult life, she’s emerged on a large, public stage. In December, she and McChesney were invited back to Washington for a holiday reception at the White House. The crush of people prevented her from shaking the president’s hand again, so they toured the red and green rooms. “I wanted to thank him,” Witt said. “I wanted to tell him he was my Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
In January, they were whisked over to Olympia to join Gov. Chris Gregoire as she announced her support of same-sex marriage. “I’m in a position where I can speak about it, and not everybody else can,” Witt says.
For so long, Witt could not talk about her experience. Not during two years as an Air Force nurse stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, during Desert Storm. Not during those 12 years flying 12- and 14-hour days over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, caring for more than 100 critically ill patients in a hospital in the sky. Not even when she got the devastating news that she had to leave the job she loved.
It’s now surreal at 47, she says, to emerge so publicly. Witt, who had never dared hug her partner in public, still can’t believe she’s left the military. She can’t bring herself to pack away her uniforms. She’s technically on inactive reserve status, which means that she doesn’t draw retirement pay until she’s 60, and she still could be called back into duty.
But now she’s the chief of rehabilitation services at Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She and her partner live near Manito Park, where their family includes McChesney’s three children, Abby, Dan and Stacer, and their three dachshunds, Piggy, Divot and Bumper.
There they watched another piece of history on Wednesday night. “It was extremely moving to hear so many senators speak from their heart in support of the bill,” Witt wrote in an email the next day. Now, Witt and McChesney are beginning to talk of a wedding of their own.
They’ve made a long list of the friends they want to invite, people who supported them through their ordeal.
“It’s hard to imagine trauma in somebody’s life,” McChesney says. “But when you’re in it, there are people there poised and ready to help you.”
This wedding, the two women agree, “is so not about the dress.”
Not that they haven’t thought about that, too. Witt plans to wear her “mess dress,” the formal Air Force women officers’ uniform, with the ankle-length skirt, the blue jacket with three “wing and star” buttons on either side, and her rows of medals.
Their wedding will mark the day when they no longer need to keep a legal document on file giving them permission to be at one another’s hospital bedside.
Now the bill moves to the state House of Representatives, which has the votes to approve it. It’s also likely that a referendum effort will put the issue on a statewide ballot.
Witt predicts sadly the hateful rhetoric that will arise during the election season.
No American military hero should hear those words.
As a country, we finally ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” and found a way for this brave nurse to retire with honor.
Now we must grant her – with respect and gratitude – the right to pursue the same dream that has propelled so many other courageous soldiers: the chance to marry the woman she loves.
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