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Retiring Gay Service Members Honored as DADT Repeal Looms

Retiring Gay Service Members Honored as DADT Repeal Looms


Two high-profile "don't ask, don't tell" repeal advocates celebrated their retirement from the military during a Sunday ceremony under the spires of the U.S. Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va.

One fought her discharge under DADT in court and won a key legal precedent that other gay service members have relied on in their own lawsuits. The other successfully blocked his impending separation under the policy and has never shied from a press opportunity to tell his story. Both have become close friends -- and Rachel Maddow Show regulars -- through their battles.

The retirement ceremony of Maj. Margaret Witt and Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach was officiated by gay rights activist legend Col. Margarethe "Grethe" Cammermeyer, who was discharged from the military, sued, and later won her reinstatement in the National Guard (she retired in 1997 with full benefits and privileges). The ceremonial retirement orders for Witt and Fehrenbach came less than three weeks from the official end of "don't ask, don't tell" on Sept. 20.

"There are so many ways that she has sacrificed for that greater good that we all in 18 days will come to treasure that much more, because we will know that those 65,000 gays and lesbians serving in the military will no longer have to live with that burden of, 'I'm wondering if someone is going to out or discharge me,'" Cammermeyer said of Witt, a flight nurse who was also officially awarded the Air Medal at the ceremony (she had been simply mailed the prestigious honor following her discharge). "I commend you for all the work that you did, Margie, and appreciate so much that you were willing to take a stand."

Cammermeyer then turned to Witt's retiring colleague and quipped to audience laughter, "Lt. Col. Fehrenbach is of a different ilk."

"His willingness to take on the Air Force," she continued of the fighter pilot, "even though he was still in the military and had to deal with the day-to-day repercussions of that -- it's a very lonely, unsettling journey. And so he has worn the uniform as the officer and pilot and human being that he is, and said 'Take me on.'"

Per her legal settlement, Witt will be given credit for 20 years of service and will officially retire 10 days after the repeal of DADT becomes effective. Her retirement date is scheduled for October 1st, the same day as Fehrenbach's. Fehrenbach said he invited Witt to share in the ceremony at the Air Force Memorial because her court case "was so instrumental" to his victory.

"What started out as one of the worst experiences of my life turned into absolutely one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences that anyone could have," Witt said. "But it was difficult to know what would have been. I can't help but think of those who had their careers cut short, and weren't able to retire. I really reflect on that today."

Both honorees also paid tribute to the service member advocates and politicians who secured repeal of DADT -- in particular Rep. Patrick Murphy, the former Pennsylvania congressman who was crucial to passage of the House bill.

"He was the right man at the right time to take on this battle," Fehrenbach said.

Photos of the ceremony on the next page.

"We've waited a long time to be able to celebrate the retirement of someone who had served in the military, who was open about their homosexuality, and also who fought the system from the get-go -- and won." -- Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer (Ret.)

"I can say without hesitation that it was the best decision I had made in my life. And I can say that because the first thing that comes to my mind is the people that I was honored to serve alongside." -- Maj. Margaret Witt on serving in the Air Force

"My mission didn't go as planned. But plans change. Even though this was the most challenging period of my life, I wouldn't change anything."--Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach

"Today we have honored two Airmen who have fought not just for their country in battle, but also for civil rights in a cause far greater than themselves." -- Army Capt. Jonathan Hopkins, who was honorably discharged under DADT in 2010
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