Lesbian nurse expects Air Force reinstatement

A lesbian flight nurse who was discharged under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy said Tuesday she hopes to be reinstated to the Air Force Reserve in December.

A federal judge ruled two months ago that Maj. Margaret Witt's firing advanced no legitimate military goals and thus violated her rights. He ordered her to be reinstated, and while the Air Force filed an appeal last week, it did not seek a stay to block Witt from rejoining her unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord while the appeal proceeds.

Though the Department of Justice could still seek such a stay, it informally told Witt's legal team Monday that it probably won't, one of Witt's lawyers said.

"All I ever wanted to do was be there for the troops and other medics when they needed me," Witt said at a news conference Tuesday. "I hope our elected leaders will repeal this unjust policy and that soon I'll be known as a flight nurse again, instead of a lesbian flight nurse."

The news conference at the Seattle office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington coincided with the Pentagon's release of a much awaited study on the effect of doing away with "don't ask, don't tell." The 1993 law prohibits the military from inquiring about the sexual orientation of troops but requires the discharge of those found to be engaging in homosexual activity. The survey found that about two-thirds of troops don't care if the ban on gay service members is lifted.

Witt, 46, was suspended in 2004 and subsequently discharged after the Air Force learned she had been in a long-term relationship with a civilian woman. She sued, and in 2008, an appeals court panel held that for the government to discharge gays it must prove that their firings further military goals.

The appeals court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma. Following a six-day trial at which several of Witt's former colleagues testified, Leighton held that her firing actually hurt morale in her unit. He ordered that she be reinstated as soon as possible.

The Air Force said last week it would consider returning Witt to her unit, the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, if she met requirements for serving as a reserve flight nurse — 180 hours of nursing time in the past year plus a fitness exam.

"Until those prerequisites are met, we can't bring her back on duty," Lt. Col. Anna Sullivan, spokeswoman for the 446th Airlift Wing, said Tuesday.

But Witt's attorneys, led by Sarah Dunne of the ACLU of Washington and Seattle lawyer James Lobsenz, disagreed. The judge's order specified that Witt "must meet the proficiency requirements to the same extent and in the same manner that other flight nurses in the 446th have" — and other flight nurses typically report their annual hours early in the following year.

Witt said Tuesday she has put in 130 hours this year and expects to complete the 180 hours in December. She had hoped to be reinstated in time to participate in her unit's next on-duty weekend, but that seemed unlikely, since it is scheduled for this weekend.

Witt said she expects to rejoin her unit in January at the latest.

Witt served in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve for 18 years and was discharged shortly before she would have been eligible for retirement benefits. She earned a medal from President George W. Bush for delivering "outstanding medical care" to injured service members while deployed to Oman in support of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Witt received another medal in 2003 for saving a Defense Department employee who collapsed aboard a flight from Bahrain.

Many of the people Witt served with are no longer in the unit. But Witt said some newer reservists whom she hasn't met have sent her notes saying they're excited to serve with her.