From Seattle Post Intelligencer via truthout.org :
Decorated Air Force Nurse, Barred Over Lesbianism, Sues
By Mike Barber
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Thursday 13 April 2006
In 1993, Maj. Margaret Witt was a poster woman for the Air Force's flight nurse recruiting program.
In her career of 18-plus years, the decorated operating room and flight nurse from McChord Air Force Base earned stellar reviews for her work, which included helping to evacuate the nation's wounded troops and humanitarian missions to aid civilians.
In 2003, President Bush awarded her the Air Medal for her Middle East deployment and, later, the Air Force Commendation Medal, for saving the life of a Defense Department worker.
Less than a year later, after an Air Force investigation, Witt, a reservist, was drummed out.
Her offense: a committed relationship, but with another woman, a civilian, from 1997 to 2003.
On Wednesday, Witt, 42, challenged her forced discharge in a lawsuit filed in US District Court in Tacoma against Air Force officials and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The lawsuit, filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, seeks to prevent Witt's discharge, citing her First and Fifth amendment protections of free speech and due process.
"I've been a proud Air Force nurse and officer for the past 19 years" mostly with the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at McChord, Witt said, appearing in uniform in Seattle. She was flanked by her lawyers, ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan, and Jim Lobsenz, an ACLU volunteer lawyer from the Seattle firm Carney Badley Spellman.
"My objective is to go back to my unit and serve my country and help the injured troops - who need me at this time," Witt said, her major's oak leaves, blue and white chief flight-nurse wings displayed on her uniform, along with a small insignia on her left sleeve that read "Sept. 11, 2001."
Lobsenz in 1990 successfully took the case of openly homosexual Army Staff Sgt. Perry Watkins of Tacoma to the US Supreme Court, forcing the Army to re-enlist Watkins. He said he is optimistic about Witt's case.
An Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon said Wednesday that the service could not comment on the lawsuit.
In general, though, Congress created the law upon which the policy is based and would have to change it to alter the Defense Department's policies, the spokesman said.
"A service member's sexuality is considered a personal and private matter. We expect all service members to be treated with dignity and respect. We conduct extensive, recurring training to eliminate harassment of all types," the spokesman said in a printed statement.
Overall discharge rates for homosexual conduct in all branches of the military have declined from 0.6 percent in 1998, or 1,145 of 192,382 discharges, to 0.3 percent in 2004, or 653 of 196,993 discharges, according to Pentagon figures.
No one has a definitive reason for the decrease, the spokesman said.
Air Force Instruction No. 36-3209, section 2.20, says service members "shall be discharged" if they "engaged in, attempted to engage in or solicited another to engage in a homosexual act or acts" or "made a statement that he or she is homosexual or bisexual."
Congress, in enacting the 1993 law that President Clinton called the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, claimed that gay and lesbian service members would hurt unit cohesiveness and readiness.
However, 24 other nations allow openly gay soldiers, including such close US allies as Australia, Israel and Britain, as well as other NATO nations, Lobsenz said. US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely serve with those nation's gay troops, he said.
Witt had kept her private life private. Or so she thought.
"Some allegations were made and an investigation was started," Witt said flatly. "I certainly didn't tell them."
Witt, who in civilian life works as a physical therapist, nurse and volunteer firefighter, said she was stunned when suddenly confronted in November 2004 following an Air Force investigation begun that summer into her relationship.
The officer who was ordered to tell her broke down and cried, she said. Witt was ordered to go, keep quiet and not tell anyone why.
"I couldn't even say goodbye," she said.
After 18 years of service, Witt was told she could no longer report for duty, no longer be paid and no longer earn points toward retirement. Her promotion to lieutenant colonel was moot.
Last month, the Air Force, which has unfilled positions of flight nurses, sent her final discharge papers.
All that, court papers say, despite performance reviews that lauded how she stepped up to many and new responsibilities and was an excellent mentor often sought out by students and peers.
One review called her an "outstanding squadron and Air Force representative - hand-picked to coordinate humanitarian mission and patient transport with multiple civilian, military, government and DOD agencies assuring continuity of care."
Her citation for the Air Medal, signed by Bush, notes that "her commitment to mission readiness and unrivaled clinical skills ensured the delivery of outstanding medical care to 140 patients during 18 sorties on C-130, KC-135 and C-17 aircraft while operating in an austere, hostile environment."
In 1993, the Air Force used her photograph in brochures used to recruit nurses.
Caplan, her lawyer, said indications are that many of Witt's troops are with her still.
"We know from people we have talked to in her unit that she is known as a superb officer, nurse and leader," Caplan said. "Even if she had to wear a patch saying her sexual orientation to get back in, they want her back."
Witt said she never wanted this attention but decided to sue after receiving her discharge letter March 6.
"I'm a very private person. I did my job to the best of my ability. I did it well. I don't think of the big picture," she said.
"It's just a waste of a good nurse, particularly now."