I was born in Oslo, Norway in 1942 during the Nazi occupation. We lived across from Nazi headquarters and my parents used me in their exploits as they supported the Norwegian underground in resisting the Nazis. My mother would conceal guns and rifles under my mattress as she would push me in the baby carriage along the streets of Oslo. She would dart into an alley and resistance forces would jump out of a doorway, lift up the mattress and charge off into the night with the weapons. As I grew up and learned to read, my heroes were those resistance forces and my parents who stood up to "the bad guys" and were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the freedom they believed in.
My father was the first Norwegian recipient of the Rockefeller Fellowship in 1946 which enabled us to spend nine months in Boston, Massachusetts. We then returned to Norway but ultimately immigrated to the United States in 1951 when I was nine. Learning to speak English, dealing with the humidity of Washington DC, and constantly cooling my face by putting poison ivy leaves on my eyelids were traumatic experiences for a young immigrant. My most memorable times as an adolescent were being invited and later being part of an all women's fast pitch softball team in Washington DC. For three years I was the team mascot, playing more as a bench warmer than as a strong-armed right fielder.
At 17 I started college at the University of Maryland. By 1960 I was old enough to become an American citizen, which was a time of feeling that I now belonged. In 1961 I heard about the Army Student Nurse Program and joined the military. The program paid for the last two years of my college education and I became an Army Nurse on graduation.
Lt. Cammermeyer went on active duty after graduation in 1963. My first active duty assignment was basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas where I and others learned to salute, wear the uniform, march, and carry patients on litters through the desert terrain of Camp Bullis. Later I spent six months at Martin Army Hospital at Ft. Benning Georgia, then a longer tour in Nuremberg, Germany. It was here I met and married a fellow soldier.
After Germany, my husband and I were sent to Ft. Lee, Virginia. It was during the buildup for Vietnam. In 1967 I was sent to the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh, Vietnam. I was in Vietnam for 14 month, six months as head nurse of a medical unit and then eight months as head nurse of the neurosurgical intensive care unit. This was no doubt the most extraordinary experience any military nurse could have been a part of.
After Vietnam my husband and I settled in Seattle, Washington. I was forced to leave the military when I became pregnant in 1968 because women were not permitted to have dependents. By 1972 that regulation was changed and I returned to the military in the Army Reserves, ultimately achieving the rank of Colonel in 1987. I had completed the Nurse Corps Basic and Advance Course, the Command and General Staff Course and Combat Casualty Course.
My husband and I divorced after 15 years and having four wonderful sons. There were problems which I did not understand at the time but which turned out to be my own identity crisis, as I came to understand that I was a lesbian. The process of a personal journey of self- discovery was difficult and painful, but necessary to find the real me.
In 1988, now as Colonel Cammermeyer, I accepted the position of Chief Nurse of the Washington State National Guard. In 1989, during an interview for top-secret clearance, to apply for the War College, I told the military "I am a lesbian".
I was separated from the military despite an exemplary military and civilian professional record. On that same day, 11 June 1992, my attorneys filed suit, on my behalf, in Federal District Court in Seattle challenging the existing ban on homosexuals in the military and requesting my reinstatement. We were in and out of court many times during the ensuing 25 months until Judge Zilly ruled the policy was unconstitutional and based on prejudice.
I was reinstated in the National Guard in June of 1994 and resumed my previous position as Chief Nurse. In March 1997, after 31 years of dedicated service to America I was retired with full military privileges
My professional nursing career gradually narrowed over the years. After earning my BS from the University of Maryland in 1963, I worked full time in the military in medical-surgical nursing and in-service education. In Vietnam I began working with neurologically impaired patients, which became the focus of my specialization for the duration of my clinical and research nursing career.
When I returned to the military in 1972 it was to the Army Reserves. I also had a concurrent civilian career in the Veterans Administration Medical Health Care System. I earned a Master of Arts degree from the University of Washington in 1976. I then specialized in neuroscience nursing and epilepsy as the Clinical Nurse Specialist in Epilepsy for five years at the VA Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. In 1981 after my divorce I transferred to the VAMC in San Francisco, California, and was the neuro-oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist for the next five years. As a result of that work I was the first recipient of the Administrator's Award for Excellence in Nursing in 1985 out of 34,000 registered nurses in the VA.
In 1986, I returned to Washington state and worked at the American Lake VAMC in Tacoma, where I was the Clinical Nurse Specialist in Neuroscience and Sleep Research for ten years. I had completed my Ph.D. at the University of Washington in 1991 and focused the last years of my clinical practice on the diagnosis and care of patients with sleep apnea. In 1996, I retired from the VA Health Care System after 30 years.
My career in nursing and the military has been highlighted by numerous awards and honors, including the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service (Vietnam), Nurse of the Year by the Department of Veterans Affairs (1985), and Woman of Power by the National Organization of Women. I am listed in Who's Who. I was awarded the Honorary Human Rights Award by the American Nurses Association. In 1995 I was awarded the Hannah Solomon Award by the Jewish Women's League and was selected as the 1995 Distinguished Alumna from the University of Washington School of Nursing.
My autobiography (with Chris Fisher) SERVING IN SILENCE (1994) was recognized by the National Education Association and was named Outstanding Book on the subject of Human Rights in North America. A made-for-television movie of the same name starring Glenn Close as Colonel Cammermeyer, received three Emmy Awards and the prestigious Peabody Award.
In 1998, I was asked to serve in a new way, and accepted the challenge of running for Congress. It was an incredible eye-opening experience being the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 2nd Congressional District in Washington. I lost that race to a long-term politician and incumbent by a margin of 45% to 55%.
From November 1999 through December 2001, I hosted my own internet radio talk show every day. Guests and I discussed relevant political, human rights, legal, health care, gay/lesbian/transgender and other issues. This was a wonderful experience in open two-way communications, a new freedom which the internet made possible.
Subsequently I got very involved in local politics and ultimately spent six years as the Chairperson of the local Democratic Party.
I was looking for a nitch. It was obvious that I am a nurse, skilled and trained in neurosciences. So in January 2006 I opened an Adult Family Home to provid skilled care to sick and ailing elderly (see Adult Family Home on this web site). And on the local level I was elected as a Whidbey General Hospital Commissioner. Nationally I continue to be actively engaged in overturning the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law which prohibits gays from serving in the military with dignity. In June 2010 I was appointed to DACOWITS (Defense Advisory Council of Women in the Services)
INTERVIEWED 2005: BAY VIEW NEWS
CHECKING IN WITH CAMMERMEYER
By Leslie Robinson
It could be said that Grethe Cammermeyer deserves a quiet retirement. The career Army nurse who rose to international prominence for challenging the U.S. military's ban on homosexuals could choose to spend her days enjoying the serenity of the large modern house with the beautiful island view she shares with partner Diane Divelbess and one Scottie, one shih tzu, and one white shepherd. But that's not Cammermeyer's way.
Fortunately for us, the colonel's still fighting. These days Cammermeyer, 63, leaves her home on Whidbey Island, Wash., to lecture at universities and national gatherings, often speaking on the evolution of social causes and civil liberties. She's also working on a book, a successor to the autobiographical Serving In Silence. Additionally, for the last five years she has chaired the Island County Democratic Party. Her chairperson position meant that, during the election of 2004, she was focused on local races.
And since Washington didn't have a constitutional ban on gay marriage on the ballot, and since she and Divelbess had seized the opportunity to marry in Oregon, "there was a certain denial of this being a year of loss,"she says. "I was in denial about it because it wasn't directly affecting us here in the state of Washington". Months after the national election results, gays in Washington took a direct hit, a one-vote defeat of the bill forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. To Cammermeyer, that "felt like a kick in the gut." She fumes over gays and lesbians contributing so much to society, only to see "some jerk" vote against civil rights for us because of his religious beliefs or fear of having to defend his vote to the home folks. "It makes me angry, it makes me frustrated, and it makes me feel that we've been demeaned by someone who's no better than us." Add to that the nullification of Oregon marriages around the same time, and she says simply,"It was not a good year." Her civil marriage in Oregon took place March 19, 2004, in Portland. "We actually eloped," she says. "Our reception was that we had a bagel and a latte."
Later on they also held a religious wedding. At their house on July 24, in front of friends and their entire families, Cammermeyer and Divelbess were married by two Episcopal priests."That cannot be taken away "says the colonel. " We are indeed married, because the church did it."She says it's nice that her 8-year-old granddaughter doesn't know that the civil marriage was nullified. "Your wedding was so beautiful,"her granddaughter tells her. "And she's a Mormon," Cammermeyer adds with a smile. It's impossible for Cammermeyer to forget her marriage was nullified. "It reminded me very much of being thrown out of the military. Of that same sense of negation, of being less than, of being devalued." She says, "That one I'm not over," and notes how she choked up at Harvard last week talking about it. "That is a core, gut feeling that comes up even as I sit here and talk with you about it" Cammermeyer says that just yesterday they received a refund for the marriage license. That $60 Divelbess suggests they give to a group fighting for marriage rights.
On the defeat of the anti-discrimination bill in Olympia, Cammermeyer says we need to learn from the experience and figure out to how to succeed next time. She says, "I continue to wonder how I can do more." She believes, "First, you live your truth. And you do that with dignity, with grace, and with visibility. Then you're active in your community," whether that's the gay community, your workplace, or any other sort. As you live your truth, she feels, the misconceptions others have of you because you're gay, or former military, or a Democrat, weaken.
This larger question of how to budge people from a narrow world view - and we're all raised with bias, she points out - is one she's tackling in her book, tentatively called "Living With Ambiguity." Cammermeyer says, ";What I've realized is all of the things I thought I knew for sure are not reality." She's using her own experiences and those of other folks in chapters on "taboo" subjects like religion, sexuality, the military, and family. "What we ought to be looking at are the possibilities," she says. "How we change the dialogue. How we challenge people to think outside their familiar biases." A tall order. "It will be a challenge to incorporate all those grandiose ideas into something readable," she allows. Each time she thinks she's done with a section, more questions crop up, along with "more ways of exploring a similar issue, which I think is healthy in terms of growth. It makes you realize that no matter how old you are there's still room to learn, to become better."
Cammermeyer, who ran for Congress in 1998, is happy with her district's current representative, Rick Larsen. But she isn't ruling out the possibility of running for state office. She has the shaking hands part down. At last year's Seattle Pride, she marched in uniform and carried the American flag with American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER). When the parade stopped at various points, individuals came out of the crowd to shake her hand. She theorizes, "They know me, even though they don't know me. I think the other part is they know I'm speaking on their behalf when I can." She's well aware the movie made from her book, which starred Glenn Close as Cammermeyer, is used as a coming-out tool in families. She has many letters from people who relate to part or parts of her story, like losing a job, coming out to kids, or going through a divorce.All this attention, even veneration, could make an officer's head swell. But Cammermeyer believes she's a symbol. "From my perspective, it really isn't about me. It's about what they perceive, and what society and the media have created, and how they relate to that." Besides, she can still hear her mother saying, "Come down to earth, prima donna." This year Seattle Pride conflicts with her spouse's new art show opening on Whidbey Island -- otherwise Cammermeyer would be happy to don her uniform and march with AVER again."I wear my uniform at every inappropriate moment," she says. "To remind people of gays and lesbians who have to serve in silence in the military."As long as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" exists and people can't serve openly, and as long as gays and lesbians in the state of Washington can be fired from their jobs simply because of their orientation, Cammermeyer has a mission. "Until that changes, those are the issues that I will be speaking out on behalf of," she says.As she girds herself for the next round of the struggle, the colonel is also having fun.
One week after our May 10 interview, she and Divelbess left their art-filled home and journeyed to San Francisco to attend the National Center for Lesbian Rights' gala. Cammermeyer presented an award to Glenn Close. Not the toughest duty the Bronze-Star winning soldier has ever drawn.
Leslie Robinson is a Seattle-based freelance writer. Her work can be read at www.generalgayeity.com.
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