Major Margaret Witt Says Her Case Offers Crucial Lesson for Congressional Hearings on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

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As the Pentagon and Congress gear up for hearings later this week on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Major Margaret Witt and her attorneys suggested at a press conference in Seattle today that that her case offers important evidence. Witt, a flight nurse, was ousted from the Air Force in 2004 after revelations that she is a lesbian. Yet a dozen or so people from her unit testified in court that her sexual orientation had no negative effect on morale, and the military presented not one person who argued to the contrary.

"I hope someone will step up and ask Senator McCain about that," said James Lobsenz, who is part of an ACLU legal team representing Witt. Sen. John McCain has been fighting proposals to repeal the policy, saying that doing so would hurt morale at a time of war. Consequently, repeal is not expected to be a slam dunk, even though the Department of Defense released a study today concluding that most service members have no problem serving alongside gay and lesbian soldiers.

Witt may soon be putting that to the test again. In September, a U.S. District Court judge ordered her reinstated in spite of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. That ruling followed an earlier decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the military can't discharge someone due to sexual orientation without proving that the soldier is having a negative effect on morale.

Last week, the military appealed the reinstatement order, but did not seek a temporary stay of that order, pending the outcome of the appeal. The Air Force said nonetheless that it might yet do so.

But at today's press conference, Lobsenz said that Peter Phipps, the Air Force's lead attorney, told him yesterday that it was "unlikely" that he would ask for a stay.

Even so, the Air Force has said that Witt must fulfill certain prerequisites before resuming her post, chiefly that she put in 180 hours of work as an RN--an annual requirement for flight nurses. Witt questioned why she has to jump through that hoop. "All Col. Grethe Cammermeyer had to do was find her uniform," she said. Cammermeyer, a lesbian who was discharged from the Washington National Guard prior to the imposition of the don't ask don't tell policy, was ordered reinstated by a federal judge in 1994.

Nevertheless, Witt, who lives in Spokane, said she is working as a rehabilitation coordination at the VA there and only needs about 50 more hours to fulfill the Air Force requirement. She said she hopes to rejoin her unit in December or January.

Smiling often and wearing a vivid blue scarf, she said she has recently heard from a number of people in her unit, including those she hasn't yet met, all of whom have told her: "We can't wait to fly with you."

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