Commentary: Congress must end 'don't ask, don't tell'

A skilled Air Force flight nurse got the justice due her in a Tacoma courtroom Friday, but military order took a beating in the process.

Maj. Margaret Witt of Spokane won her fight to be reinstated four years after the military discharged her for being gay. U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruled that her presence did not adversely affect unit morale or cohesion.

It was the first judicial application of the so-called "Witt standard," established by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 as a caveat to the military's 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Witt easily met her namesake standard: Several members of her squadron testified that her firing hadn't preserved unit morale, cohesion and troop readiness — it had hurt them.

Her legal win was, in Judge Leighton's words, a victory in gays' long fight for civil rights. It also was a setback for equal treatment and military discipline.

The Witt standard is a 9th Circuit precedent and therefore provides relief only to gay troops in the Western states that make up the circuit. It also creates a subjective and ultimately unworkable benchmark for determining whether the military has grounds to expel a gay service member.

The Air Force argued convincingly during the Witt trial that all regulations must be enforced uniformly to maintain order and morale.

Lt. Gen Charles E. Stenner, chief of the Air Force Reserve, told the court: "If you apply the rules consistently, then all is well. If you apply them inconsistently, it leads to a festering discussion. It leads to a loss of readiness, really."

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