SEATTLE – An Air Force Reserve flight nurse who sued to overturn her dismissal under the "don't ask, don't tell" law against gays serving openly in the military said Tuesday she is retiring with full benefits rather than resuming service.
Maj. Margaret Witt, 47, served 18 years — two short of being eligible for full retirement — before she was dismissed for being gay in 2006. A federal judge ruled last fall that her dismissal failed to advance any legitimate military goals and violated her constitutional rights. The judge ordered that Witt be reinstated as soon as possible.
The U.S. Justice Department initially appealed. But early this year, after President Barack Obama signed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," Justice Department officials contacted Witt's lawyers and said the agency planned to drop the appeal, remove the discharge from her record, and give her credit for two additional years of service, said Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which represented Witt.
That settlement was announced Tuesday. A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
"It's nice to be able to say I'm a retired member of the U.S. Air Force," Witt said during an emotional news conference attended by her partner and parents.
She said she was proud to have played a role in fighting "don't ask, don't tell," but also wishes she could have remained with her colleagues at the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, especially during deployments.
Witt's case led to a landmark ruling by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in 2008. The judges held that while they did not consider the law unconstitutional on its face, the military also could not discharge members unless it could show that their firing advanced military goals, such as unit cohesion or good morale.
The case was sent back to federal court in Tacoma, Wash., where U.S. District Judge Ron Leighton held a six-day trial in September to determine whether Witt's firing met such goals. The government presented no evidence that Witt's presence had a detrimental effect on her unit, and the judge ordered her reinstated.
Witt said Tuesday she had the option of continuing to serve but decided to retire from the military instead out of thoughts for her partner, Laurie McChesney, and family.
Witt continues to work as a rehabilitation coordinator at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Spokane and has started working toward a doctorate. She said she would also continue to offer support to gay and lesbian troops seeking advice on how or whether to come out.
Training on accepting gays in the service is taking place at bases around the world as the military prepares for the end of "don't ask, don't tell." The policy's repeal would take effect 60 days after the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that lifting the ban won't hurt the military's ability to fight.