Maj. Margaret Witt, the lesbian flight nurse fighting to get her Air Force job back, got her day in court Monday, and it turned into a free-for-all assault on the government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Witt’s attorneys and four witnesses who testified in her behalf said homosexuality is a nonissue in today’s military and that Witt never should have lost her job in the first place.
“The time for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ has ended,” said Sarah Dunne, the legal director of Washington ACLU and the leader of Witt’s legal team. “America is in a different place, and so is the U.S. military.”
Witt was suspended in 2004 for being a lesbian and was honorably discharged. She challenged the constitutionality of her dismissal, and a 2008 appeals court ruling sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Tacoma for a determination by Judge Ronald B. Leighton.
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In her opening statement, Dunne rejected the notion that Witt’s presence caused morale problems in the 446th Airlift Wing at McChord, a unit which she said has a 30-year history of tolerance.
“Witt’s sexual orientation was a nonissue for her unit and the military,” Dunne said.
Witt did not address the court Monday. She sat quietly in the front row of spectators, separated from her attorneys by a low wooden wall and surrounded by supporters.
Among them, sitting directly to Witt’s right, was Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a decorated Air Force combat pilot who is fighting his discharge under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Department of Justice attorney Peter Phipps, one of the attorneys representing the Air Force, said in his opening statement that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy remains valid and constitutional.
The Air Force applied the policy correctly in Witt’s case, he said, and the Congressional findings that led to the policy are still sound.
The intent of the policy was to avoid the risk of loss of unit cohesion and morale, he said, which is a legitimate government interest.
The fact that Witt apparently had support from coworkers within the 446th is irrelevant, he said.
“This has to be applied the same way everywhere,” he said. “There can’t be special exceptions made without creating problems.”
Military units are often called on to work closely with other units, Phipps said. They are routinely transferred from place to place and must participate in joint training exercises, he said.
The effect of gays and lesbians on unit cohesion cannot just be applied to one squadron, Phipps said. The effect of their presence has to be considered service-wide.
Witnesses called by Witt’s attorneys opened a window on gay life in the military and the allegedly inconsistent ways which the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is handled.
Gays and lesbians in the Air Force, Navy and Army testified that the policy is widely resented and often ignored.
One witness, a former Army medic with two tours in Iraq, said that when military investigators began their inquiry into his sexual orientation in 2006, he honestly answered all questions about his homosexuality, even going so far as to submit photographs of himself and his boyfriend, holding hands and kissing.
Even so, said Sgt. Darren Manzella, the Army concluded that he was not gay and sent him back to work for two more years. Manzella was discharged for being a homosexual in 2008.
Manzella said he didn’t know he was gay when he joined the Army. He figured it out in Iraq, he said, where he made more than 100 12-hour patrols with his unit.
Not being able to tell fellow soldiers that he was gay created a barrier, he said.
“In the Army, honesty and integrity are very important,” he said. “ It was very difficult for me to sit there and lie about something.”
“We had developed such trust. I felt like every time I lied to them or wasn’t completely honest, I was chipping away at that trust.”
Manzella said that when he began to be open about being gay, he became a better soldier because he no longer had to keep secrets.
All of Monday’s witnesses characterized the “don’t ask” policy as being out of touch with current military attitudes. Sexual orientation is a matter of interest among military members, they said, but in the work environment it is almost always irrelevant, even under conditions where they sleep inches apart and share toilets and showers with little or no privacy.
“It’s not important to me,” said Lt. Col. Vincent Oda, an Air Force medical standards evaluator with the 446th at McChord who worked with Witt.
After Witt was suspended in 2004, Oda said, morale at the 446th went down.
“The consensus was, who cared?” about her sexual orientation, Oda said. “We were at war; we were short-staffed. It was the loss of an able flight nurse.”
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. James Schaffer, who is now a Spokane Fire Department captain, said he flew hundreds of missions with Witt and never observed anybody who had a problem working with her, even though it was widely known that she was a lesbian.
“I thought more of her because she was honest about it, instead of lying,” Schaffer said. “It’s not about what you are, but who you are.
Witt’s trial continues today and is expected to last into next week, according to attorneys.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 firstname.lastname@example.org