By mia hinkle
HISTORY WITH A CAPITAL H
Did anyone in the family play a part in history with a capital H? The answer is a resounding YES with a capital Y. E. S. Have you ever heard of the legal term THE WITT STANDARD?
Margaret Witt is my cousin, my children’s cousin once removed. And get this! Margie is the woman who ended the ban on gays in the military. I would say that rises to the occasion of history with a capital H. I love so many things about this story, but perhaps the greatest takeaway is that, with enough grit, determination, and a good plan, ordinary people can do extraordinary things to make the world a better place!
Margie grew up an ordinary kid from a middle-class family in Tacoma, Washington. Her parents were both educators who always encouraged their three children to do their best in any endeavor. They spent their summers at Mount Rainier National Park where her dad was a summer-time ranger. She attended public school where she was a good student and excelled at varsity sports. She graduated from Pacific Lutheran University with a nursing degree. Just an ordinary kid, Margie never dreamed that she would one day grow up to win a landmark legal battle and change US military policy.
Major Margaret Witt served in the United States Air Force as a decorated flight nurse for 19 years until 2006. Just shy of retirement, someone outed her same-sex relationship to her superiors and she was kicked out of the Air Force where she had served with distinction in the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Suddenly Margie found herself stripped of her rank, retirement, severance, and benefits after spending her career serving our nation’s wounded warriors. It didn’t quite seem fair. Gays have been serving with honor in the military worldwide probably since the first army was formed thousands of years ago, yet many face persecutions at every turn. For discharged service members like Margie, the stigma of involuntary discharge often became a life-long indignity. That was about to change.
With the help of the ACLU, Margie filed a lawsuit in 2006, and even though the government argued that her sexual orientation undermined her ability to lead and to do her job, there were numerous testimonies from people, who actually knew her and worked with her, to the contrary: “Dynamic officer” … “A vital team player” … “Exceptional flight nurse” … “Excellent role model” … “Always ready to support the mission” were just a few of the phrases used in Margie’s defense during her trial. Even her official record was full of commendations and promotions based on her 19-year-long job performance. During her trial, Margie stated, “Wounded people never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me there.”
In 2008 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Air Force must prove that discharging Major Witt was necessary for purposes of military readiness. Although the ruling left in place the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, it sent the case back to the trial court saying that before discharging a soldier under the policy, the military must prove that the individual’s conduct actually hurts morale and unit cohesion. This requirement became known as the “Witt Standard.”
In 1993 Margie, then a young Air Force nurse was chosen as the face of the Air Force’s “Cross into the Blue” recruitment campaign. This was also the year that President Clinton’s plan for gays to serve openly in the military was quashed by a contrary Congress, resulting in the blandly cynical political compromise known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Contrary to its intent, DADT had the perverse effect of making it harder for gay servicemen women to fight expulsion. Over the next seventeen years more than 13,000 gay soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guard, and airmen and women were removed from military service. That is until Margie Witt’s landmark case put a stop to it.
When President Bill Clinton signed the DADT policy into law, it represented a compromise between those who wanted to end the longstanding ban on gays serving in the U.S. military and those who felt having openly gay troops would hurt morale and cause problems within military ranks. Under the new policy, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans could serve their country, as long as they kept their sexual identity under wraps. Margie carefully kept it under wraps for 19 long years, faithfully serving her country along the way.
Though supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” welcomed it as a more liberal policy that would allow gay Americans to serve their country, gay rights activists complained that it forced these service members into secrecy while doing little to combat the prejudice against them. Meanwhile, the military continued to discharge thousands of gays and lesbians from service. In reality, DADT set up a culture of witch hunts carried out by the homophobic, hell-bent on exposing gay servicemen and women to get them expelled from the ranks with no regard to their skill and performance.
In September 2010, after a six-day trial, the U.S. District Court in Tacoma found that Major Witt’s sexual orientation does not negatively impact unit morale or cohesion and ordered the Air Force to reinstate her. The ruling declared that Major Witt would indeed be reinstated and could retire with full benefits, the government would drop its appeal of the federal court ruling in her favor, and the unlawful discharge will be removed from her military service record. In other words, Margie took on the US Government and WON!
Then on December 22, 2010, President Obama signed legislation passed by Congress repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Margie attended the signing ceremony in Washington, DC.
Margie, along with award-winning journalist, Tim Connor, wrote a book called, “Tell: Love Defiance, and the Military Trial at the Tipping Point for Gay Rights.” Here is the publisher synopsis and a few reviews after its release in 2017. I strongly suggest reading it or listening to it on Audible.
“Tell” is the riveting story of Major Margaret Witt’s dedicated and decorated military career as a frontline flight nurse, and of her love and devotion to her partner — now wife — Laurie Johnson. Tell captures the tension and drama of the politically charged legal battle that led to the congressional repeal of the controversial law and helped pave the way for a suite of landmark political and legal victories for gay rights. Tell is a testament to the power of love to transform hearts and minds, as well as a celebration of the indomitable spirit of Major Witt, her wife Laurie, her dedicated legal team, and the brave men and women who came forward to testify on her behalf in a historic federal trial.
“The name Margaret Witt may join the canon of US civil rights pioneers.” —-Guardian
“The reason [Don’t Ask Don’t Tell] was repealed was because [Major Witt] put a real face on it.” —- Former U.S. Senator and Vice-Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman
“Major Witt’s trial provided an unparalleled opportunity to attack the central premise of [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell] … and set an important precedent.” —- New York Times
“A landmark ruling.” —- Politico
“You may not know her name, but Margaret Witt is one of those seemingly ordinary Americans whose persistence changed the country’s culture. Her determination will help many who serve this country live better lives. Read her story. Tell others. What she’s done speaks for itself.” —- Bob Dotson, New York Times–bestselling author of American
“Margaret Witt’s moving and inspirational story of how she took on the US military and won is a powerful testament to how regular people can help achieve extraordinary results. Witt gives the reader a poignant insider’s perspective on the legal case that was crucial in building momentum to send Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell the dustbin of this country’s history.” —- Marc Solomon, author of Winning Marriage
“This discussion [of Major Witt’s case] formed the backdrop of my first in-depth discussion of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with President Obama.” —- Former secretary of defense Robert M. Gates
“Few people get to actually witness history and fewer still are fundamental in making it happen. Major Margaret Witt has managed to do both. Tell reminds us that now more than ever we must learn to care for each other across differences within our communities, especially when those in power attempt to diminish us.” —-Ryan Berg, author of No House to Call My Home
Explorer and mountaineer Edmund Hillary once said, “People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” In your life, you will come face to face with injustices in our society. Those injustices may seem insurmountable and deeply entrenched. Some may even be happening at the hand of the very institutions charged with taking care of us … like the US Government!
Go ahead and take a chance!
Be on the right side of history!
Use the gifts God gave you and the power at your disposal to do something extraordinary!
You may be just an ordinary person but you can accomplish extraordinary things in this life!