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Originally published Monday, September 13, 2010 at 10:07 PM

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What gay stigma in ranks?

Opening arguments began Monday in former Maj. Margaret Witt's challenge of her discharge from the Air Force because of her sexuality. Witt, a lesbian, who was a highly regarded military nurse, is suing to be reinstated.

Seattle Times staff reporter

TACOMA — In his years of service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, retired Master Sgt. James Schaffer testified in federal court on Monday, gay and lesbian members of his Air Force Reserve unit bore no stigma.

So in 2004, he was stunned to learn of an Air Force decision to suspend one member of his unit, Maj. Margaret Witt, for homosexual conduct that violated the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"I felt it was a dishonorable act on the part of the Air Force," Schaffer testified Monday as the leadoff witness in a U.S. District Court trial to determine whether Witt, who was eventually forced into retirement, should be reinstated with the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.

The trial, which does not involve a jury, will be ruled upon by U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton. It has attracted national attention in a year when Congress is considering a repeal of the 1993 law that forbids gay and lesbian military personnel from openly talking about their sexual orientation.

Opponents of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy have waged a separate legal assault in federal courts. Last week they gained a victory when a California federal judge ruled that the policy was unconstitutional, although that decision is certain to be appealed and will not have a direct bearing on Witt's case.

Witt is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which has joined in the battle against the policy. In 2008, Witt's legal challenge resulted in a significant ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying the military should have to establish an important government interest — such as the preservation of unit morale, discipline and order — in making the decision to force someone from the military because of openly homosexual conduct.

Representing the Air Force, Justice Department attorney Peter Phipps said in opening arguments Monday that Witt had "compromised her integrity and her ability to lead" when she conducted a relationship with a married woman and also had relations with two female Air Force officers.

Phipps asserted that the Air Force actions against Witt were justified, and reinstating her would put the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which is supposed to be applied uniformly across the military, in serious risk.

One of Witt's attorneys, Sarah Dunne of the ACLU, said in her opening statement that Witt was a highly skilled Air Force nurse who consistently received outstanding evaluations as well as awards for her service to injured military personnel. Dunne said that unit morale was harmed by Witt's dismissal from the unit, and would be bolstered by allowing her to rejoin her unit.

"We will present evidence that Major Witt's sexual orientation was a nonissue for her unit," Dunne told the court. "The 446th [Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron] had a culture of acceptance of gay and lesbian service members for over 30 years."

Schaffer, the lead witness in the trial, was a longtime friend and colleague of Witt's. As reservists, they frequently shifted between civilian life and Air Force duty, and after one weekend of such military duty in the late 1990s Witt acknowledged to Schaffer that she was lesbian.

Schaffer said that admission helped clear up some confusion in his mind but was no big deal. Altogether, he said, he knew of 12 gays and lesbians among the more than 100 members of the unit, including two dating couples within the unit.

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Sexual preference had no bearing on the unit cohesion, he said, and the biggest blow to morale came when Witt was suspended.

"She was highly, highly regarded by pretty much everyone there," Schaffer said.

Witt's attorneys are also attempting to draw on the experiences of other gay and lesbian military personnel to bolster arguments that their client's return to service would not harm the military.

Monday afternoon, Witt's attorneys called Jenny Kopfstein to the stand. She is a retired Navy officer who wrote a letter to the captain of her ship acknowledging that she is a lesbian. She subsequently was able to serve in the military for two more years before she was forced to retire. She said that once the letter was written, she never tried to hide her sexual orientation. She testified that her openness created more trust between her and other members of her unit because she wasn't always having to dodge personal questions.

"I never lied again," Kopfstein testified. "I answered people's questions fully and completely and honestly." Retired Sgt. Darren Manzella also said he acknowledged he was gay to his Army commanders, and in 2006 even offered them photos of him holding hands with his boyfriend.

Initially, the Army did not determine that he had violated the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and for two years he was able to serve as an openly gay soldier. He said other members of his unit accepted him, and he was much relieved to no longer have to hide who he was.

By his desk, Manzella even pinned up a picture of his boyfriend, and when asked, he let others know who that was.

"I was more open, more focused," Manzella said. "I think it made me a better soldier."

The trial is to continue into next week at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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