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Lesbian nurse 'absolutely shocked' when asked

Margaret Witt, center, and her partner, Laurie McChesney, right, walk with Sher Kung, left, an attorney with the ACLU, to the federal courthouse in Tacoma on Monday.  (AP Photo)
Margaret Witt, center, and her partner, Laurie McChesney, right, walk with Sher Kung, left, an attorney with the ACLU, to the federal courthouse in Tacoma on Monday. (AP Photo) TED S. WARREN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tacoma - When Maj. Margaret Witt was an Air Force flight nurse, her understanding of the government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was simple, she testified Monday in U.S. District Court.

“They wouldn’t ask, and I wasn’t supposed to tell,” she said.

As long as she kept her sexual orientation private, Witt said, she assumed she would be left alone to do her job.

But the Air Force did ask, after the husband of a civilian woman with whom Witt was having an affair sent an e-mail to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper in 2004, telling him Witt was a lesbian.

“I was absolutely shocked I was being asked anything at all,” Witt said.

She was suspended from the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, a reserve unit at McChord Air Force Base, for “homosexual conduct,” and was honorably discharged in 2006 after 18 years of service.

Witt subsequently sued the Air Force, wanting her job and benefits back, and challenging the constitutionality of her dismissal.

After a week of testimony in the nationally watched trial, Witt at last took the stand Monday, attracting a surge of media and Witt supporters to Judge Ronald Leighton’s courtroom in Tacoma.

On the stand, Witt was poised and articulate, maintaining her composure for most of 31/2 hours.

Witt was moved to tears three times, first when she described the circumstances on Nov. 4, 2004, when her unit commander, Col. Janette Moore-Harbert, came to her office and broke the news that she would have to gather her belongings and leave the base.

“She stood in the doorway,” Witt recalled, “and looked at me and said, ‘Maj. Witt …’”

“I just looked at her and said, ‘No,’”

“She said, ‘Yeah. Come on.’”

‘HARDEST THING’

According to Witt, Moore-Harbert told her, “Margie, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my Air Force career, but our hands are tied.”

Witt cried again when she told the court about being forced to break the news of her sexual orientation to her parents, the night before she was to appear at a news conference announcing her dismissal.

“They didn’t miss a beat. They were behind me the whole time. It’s the best thing that’s come out of this.”

And Witt shed tears as she recounted how her relationship began with her current partner, who at the time was married and helping raise four children.

“I don’t regret the relationship,” Witt said, “but I do very much regret the way I handled it in the beginning, and I apologize for that.”

In their cross-examination of Witt, Justice Department attorneys representing the Air Force tried to establish that she had not been as discreet as she claimed.

Under questioning, Witt admitted having sexual relationships with two Air Force women, one of whom is still in the service.

The first relationship lasted from 1987 to 1989, Witt said, and the other lasted from 1992 to 1996. Neither woman was in her chain of command, Witt said.

Otherwise, she said, she told only “two, maybe three” people her sexual orientation.

ASSUMPTIONS

One of them was retired Air Force Master Sgt. James Schaffer, who testified on Witt’s behalf last week and who Witt described as being among her best friends.

“He was like my brother,” Witt said. “I couldn’t lie to him.”

Others made assumptions about her, Witt said, that she didn’t contradict.

When Justice Department attorney Peter Phipps asked whether she agreed adultery was “not consistent with a high standard of conduct,” Witt responded, “Yes.”

Judge Leighton asked Witt what her dismissal had cost in terms of compensation and benefits. Witt did not come up with a figure, but said she was forced out two years short of the 20 years required for military retirement.

She almost certainly would have been promoted, she said, which would have increased her pay, plus she has lost flight pay, all services on base and lifelong health care.

“It’s as though I was never there,” she said.

Phipps took issue with that, noting Witt now works for the federal Veterans Administration and would be able to transfer her military service into at least some federal retirement.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 rob.carson@thenewstribune.com

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