The high-profile case of a lesbian Air Force officer who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and seeking reinstatement in the U.S. military has resulted in a settlement allowing her to retire with full benefits.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington announced that Maj. Margaret Witt, a flight nurse separated in 2007 under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” reached an agreement with the U.S. government in litigation challenging her discharge. The ACLU of Washington represented Witt since 2006 in a lawsuit known as Witt v. Air Force.
According to the ACLU, Witt will retire with full benefits, the unlawful discharge will be removed from her military service record and the U.S. government will drop the appeal of the district court ruling in her favor.
In a statement, Witt said rulings and appeals over the course of litigation in the Ninth Circuit contributed to discussion on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that led to passage of legislation allowing for repeal of the law. She was present during the signing ceremony of the repeal legislation in December.
“I am proud to have played a role in bringing about the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Witt said. “I am so pleased that the tens of thousands of lesbians and gays who have served their country honorably will be able to serve openly.”
In November, the Obama administration appealed to U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals a decision from U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ordering that Witt be reinstated into the Air Force. Following his ruling in September, Witt became the first gay person discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be reinstated by court order.
“For the past seven years, I have been fighting for my rights and the rights of other lesbians and gays in the military,” Witt said. “I wish I could have spent that time serving with my peers. Now, with the lawsuit completed, I’m ready to start a new chapter in my life.”
Witt, who had served in the Air Force for 18 years, has begun a doctorate program and serves as rehab coordinator at the Veterans Administration hospital in Spokane, Wash, according to the ACLU.
Sarah Dunne, legal director for ACLU of Washington, responded to the settlement by commending the U.S. military for moving toward repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“As we’ve seen over the past six months, the military is now in the process of successfully integrating openly lesbian and gay soldiers,” Dunne said. “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a failed policy that perpetuated unlawful discrimination for far too long. We are pleased that gay and lesbian U.S. service members no longer have to hide their sexual orientation and compromise their integrity.”
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, commended Witt for reaching a settlement with the U.S. government.
“Her case established a new rule of law in the Ninth Circuit, and her voice and story were pivotal in building support for the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Sarvis said. “This is not just a victory for Maj. Witt — it’s a victory for justice and for service members everywhere.”
In 2008, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Air Force had to prove that discharging Witt was needed for purposes of military readiness. Additionally, the court ruled that before separating a service member under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military had to prove that his or her presence undermines unit cohesion. This requirement became known as the “Witt Standard” and was used in subsequent litigation against the military’s gay ban.