1. Milano, Carol

Article Content

Major Margaret Witt wants her job back. Once photographed for a nurse-recruitment advertisement, she was a flight nurse and operating room nurse in the U.S. Air Force for 19 years, including a tour of duty in the Persian Gulf. In 2003, after saving the life of a Department of Defense employee who collapsed aboard a flight in Bahrain, Witt was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal. As standards and evaluations flight commander, she supervised more than 200 flight nurses and medical technicians.


After returning from her unit's Persian Gulf duties in 1995, Witt became a regular air force reservist, while holding civilian jobs as an RN and physical therapist. In 2003 her six-year relationship with a civilian woman came to an end; in 2004 Major Witt, then assigned to McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, was informed of an air force investigation of alleged "homosexual conduct." Later that year, as a preliminary to formal separation procedures, she was placed on unpaid leave and barred from performing military duties.


In March 2006 the 42-year-old learned that she was being discharged, and in April the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington State filed a lawsuit against the air force on her behalf, challenging her dismissal. The ACLU will submit statements from military colleagues, saying that Major Witt's forced absence is harmful to her unit's morale. A discharge from the air force would mean that Witt, according to the lawsuit, "could no longer earn pay and points towards a retirement pension, that she could not participate in any duty pending resolution of her separation action, and that she was no longer eligible for promotion."


Discharges from the armed forces for alleged homosexuality are common, says James Lobsenz, her pro bono ACLU attorney, "but not usually after so many years of service," he says. He expects a lengthy case, with a likely appeal. Lobsenz previously represented an army sergeant who challenged his dismissal for being gay. After a decade, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the army could not discharge the man.


In a statement, the Air Force Reserve Corps said, "Before any findings are reached, allegations remain as unsubstantiated allegations and it would be unfair and inappropriate for the Air Force to comment upon any unresolved case."


According to the Service-members Legal Defense Network, the "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue, don't harass" policy has led to the discharge of nearly 10,000 personnel. The ANA opposes the "don't ask, don't tell" policy; at its 2003 annual meeting, the ANA's House of Delegates directed the association to communicate with Congress, the president, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "urging the military to abandon discrimination against lesbians and gays."


"I love my job and the people," says Witt. "I've gotten nothing but support from everyone in my unit."

FIGURE. The whole po... - Click to enlarge in new windowFIGURE. "The whole policy seems to be such a waste of talent," says Major Margaret Witt of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue, don't harass" approach to the sexual orientation of service members. Witt was discharged from the air force in April for "homosexual conduct."

While still enthusiastic, Witt says, "The whole policy seems to be such a waste of talent." And it appears that the air force can hardly afford to lose experienced nurses: the air force reserve had 121 vacancies for flight nurses at the rank of major, as of April.