Cammermeyer, Margarethe (1942—)

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Cammermeyer, Margarethe (1942—)

American chief nurse of the Washington National Guard who, discharged from duty on the grounds that she was a homosexual, dedicated herself to changing the military's prejudiced policy against gays. Name variations: Grethe Cammermeyer. Born in March 1942 in Oslo, Norway; daughter of a renowned neuropathologist and a nurse; became a U.S. citizen in 1960; University of Maryland, B.S., 1963; graduated from the Army Student Nurse Program, 1963; University of Washington, M.A., 1976, Ph.D., 1991; married Harvey Hawken, on August 14, 1965 (divorced 1980); lives with Diane Divelbess (a university professor and artist); children: four sons.

In March 1942, Margarethe Cammermeyer was born in Oslo, Norway, the eldest in a family of four children. Her mother, a nurse, and her father, a neuropathologist, were members of the underground anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. Margarethe was only months old when her mother packed her into the baby carriage with guns, hidden beneath her blankets, for distribution to resistance members. She was a young child in 1945 when she watched American soldiers marching through town, liberating Oslo. From that time forward, she had a love of things American, particularly the country's military. In 1951, a year after her father was offered a position in Washington, D.C., the family received permission from Norway to immigrate to America.

Cammermeyer entered the pre-med program at the University of Maryland in the fall of 1959, intending to become a doctor like her father and his father before him. But toward the end of her sophomore year, a graduate from the Army Student Nurse Program walked into a bowling party Cammermeyer was attending, and Cammermeyer, recalling the high esteem in which she had held the women of the Norwegian Resistance, knew that she wanted to serve her new country as a military nurse. In 1960, she became a U.S. citizen and joined the Army Student Nurse Program in 1961, graduating two years later. Cammermeyer continued her training at the Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, then worked in a Georgia army hospital in the gynecology and obstetrics ward, before being sent to a U.S. base in Nuremberg, Germany, in March of 1964. There, she met a tank commander named Harvey Hawken, whom she married in Nuremberg on August 14, 1965.

After the couple returned to the United States in 1966, Hawken was assigned to duty in Vietnam. Cammermeyer volunteered for service there, both because she felt a duty to do so and to be close to her husband. From February 1967 to May 1968, she served in Vietnam during a period of some of the most intense fighting. She remarked of her efforts as head nurse of an intensive care ward: "My work was a mix of contradictions. I helped save men with such massive injuries that I can only wonder if they hated me for it. When we did make them 100 percent better, we were the agents that propelled them back out into combat and possible death. When we couldn't save them, I was there with them when they died." At one point, Cammermeyer risked disciplinary action when she refused orders to leave the wounded behind. For her efforts in Vietnam, she was awarded a Bronze Star.

Once they returned to the United States, Margarethe and Harvey lived on land they had purchased in Washington State near Puget Sound. Margarethe raised their four sons during the next decade, served as nurse at a military hospital, and did graduate work. She was forced to leave the military in 1968 with the birth of her first son because women were then not allowed to have dependents under 16 years of age. The regulation was changed in 1972, and Cammermeyer returned to the military. Specializing in neuroscience nursing with a focus on epilepsy and cognitive impairment, she earned her masters degree from the University of Washington in 1976. Although friends considered Harvey and Margarethe the perfect couple, strain on the marriage increased as Harvey resented the amount of time his wife dedicated to her work. They were divorced in 1980, and custody of the children was awarded to Harvey. Devastated, Cammermeyer chose not to contest the decision, fearing a nasty court battle.

She took a position in San Francisco at a veteran's hospital, and in 1985 the Veterans Administration presented her their Nurse of the Year award while the Women's Veterans Association named her Woman of the Year. To be near her sons, Cammermeyer returned to Washington, where, promoted to colonel, she was chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard. On July 4, 1987, she met Diane Divelbess, a university professor and artist. The relationship that developed between them took Cammermeyer to a new awareness in her life. "My relationship with Diane," she said, "evolved out of a mutual caring, trust, respect, and enjoyment of being together. It just felt right, and that rightness made me realize I am a lesbian." Cammermeyer did not expect this personal realization to impact her professional life. "At the time," said Cammermeyer, "there was not much talk about gays in the military. I never thought I'd have to choose between being honest and serving my country. I didn't think I'd lose my military career because of prejudice and hate."

Since joining the army in 1961, she had dreamed about becoming national chief nurse and an army general. The only thing standing between her and the new post was the War College, which she would need to attend, and which required a Top Secret security clearance. Her interview took place on April 28, 1989. During the session, she was asked a routine question about homosexuality and replied honestly, with the four words that were to change her life and make news across the nation: "I am a lesbian." The 45-minute session became an interrogation that went on for five hours.

She was notified seven months later that her security clearance had been withdrawn and that discharge was under consideration. Cammermeyer continued her work as chief nurse of the Washington National Guard while her lawyers awaited the army's next move. Although terrified of possible rejection and the shame they might feel, she decided to tell her sons, at least in part to warn them of the potential battle and publicity that her honesty with the government might yet provoke. Each son said that they already knew and had no conflict with her sexual identity. During the next few years, all four came to live with her in the home she shared with Diane.

Cammermeyer, a nearly three-decade army nurse with impeccable credentials, received a telegram on March 18, 1991, informing her that the army would recommend her discharge and that she could plead her case at an administrative hearing. She received her Ph.D. in nursing from the University of Washington two days later. On July 14, 1991, her legal defense team went into the hearing intending to reveal the army's anti-gay policy as irrational and founded exclusively on prejudice, and to illuminate the long history of gays and lesbians who served with honor in the military.

Witnesses testified that, even after Cammermeyer's unit learned that she was a lesbian, no breakdown in unit cohesion or morale occurred. The 1988 Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center (PERSEREC) Report, commissioned by the Defense Department, was discussed in length by a former assistant secretary of defense, who remarked on the report's conclusion that the army's policy on homosexuals was founded upon prejudice and stereotype. The report—finding no evidence to uphold the military's claim that homosexuals presented poor security risks, nor that homosexuals were disruptive to the military's order, discipline, or morale—suggested that the policy should be extinguished. Last to testify was Cammermeyer:

There are times when change can be made only by someone stepping forth, being willing perhaps to expose themselves and their vulnerability so that others become aware of the fact that there are differences in the world. So that people will understand these differences are okay and don't affect our ability to be part of an organization or to make a contribution. And so, I choose … to come before you and my family, and be vulnerable in hopes that perhaps it can influence making a change and allowing us to serve as we have in the past and will continue to do in the future.

The board deliberated for an hour. Its decision read: "Colonel Cammermeyer has proved to be a great asset [to the military] and the medical profession as a whole. She has consistently provided superb leadership. … Not with standing, the board finds Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer is a homosexual." Cammermeyer was the highest ranking officer ever discharged for homosexuality.

Cammermeyer's last day in the military was June 11, 1992, on which she turned in a 300-page document, which was to become what writer Laurie Lindop has called "the definitive document on standard operating procedures for military nurses." That year, a report detailing the cost of the military's anti-gay policy was released from the U.S. government, which had spent $494 million to train and discharge gays and lesbians between 1980 and 1991. The cost of investigations against homosexuals, not included in this amount, increased the sum significantly, amounting to $2.5 million for the year 1990 alone.

In 1992, Cammermeyer was preparing to fight the policy in civil court when the newly elected president Bill Clinton informed her of his hope to lift the military's ban against homosexuals. Clinton prodded Congress to reevaluate the policy in 1993, and as Cammermeyer met individually in Washington with in excess of 50 senators she asked them to study the facts put forth in the PERSEREC report and to support lifting the ban on homosexuals with their votes. When it became apparent that there would not be enough votes to support lifting the ban, the Clinton administration agreed to a compromise, what is known as the "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy. No longer would recruits and military members asking for security clearances be asked if they were homosexuals. If, however, a recruit or military member makes a disclosure of their homosexuality, they could be investigated and discharged. Said Cammermeyer of the new "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy, "It's a travesty. It shows how incredibly backward our approach to human rights is."

Cammermeyer's case challenging the ban on homosexuals in the military and requesting reinstatement was tried in the spring of 1994, and the Pentagon was ordered by a federal judge to reinstate her. After Cammermeyer had been separated from the military for 25 months, Judge Zilly ruled that the military's policy by which her discharge had been justified was unconstitutional and "based solely on prejudice. Prejudice, whether founded on unsubstantiated fears, cultural myths, stereotypes or erroneous assumptions cannot be the basis of a discriminatory classification." This ruling affected the military's old ban on homosexuals that was in force at the time of Cammermeyer's discharge, not the new "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy. In July of 1994, Margarethe Cammermeyer reported back to the National Guard and was met by a standing ovation from her unit.

She served as chief nurse of the 164th MASH until May of 1996 and retired from the military on March 23, 1997. The Justice Department denied a motion to vacate the 1994 decision in November of 1997, and Cammermeyer's ruling became case law.

Cammermeyer was the 1995 Distinguished Alumna from the University of Washington School of Nursing, was recognized by the National Organization of Women with the Women of Power award, and received the Honorary Human Rights Award from the American Nurses Association, the Humanitarian Award by the Privacy Fund, and The Hannah Solomon award from the Jewish Women League.

In the 1998 elections, Cammermeyer challenged U.S. Representative Jack Metcalf, R-Langley. After she announced her intentions to run, Metcalf let it be known that he had a "lot of respect for Grethe Cammermeyer" and would run against her politically not personally. Although she was not successful in her bid, Cammermeyer promised her supporters that she would find other ways to continue to serve her country.

Cammermeyer's autobiography, Serving in Silence (1994), was cited as an Outstanding Book on the subject of human rights in North America by the Gustavus Myers Center and was recognized by the National Education Association. The book was the basis of an award-winning television movie of the same name, which starred Glenn Close . Barbra Streisand served as an executive producer for the movie, which took three Emmy awards (Glenn Close for Best Actress, Judy Davis for Best Supporting Actress, and Alison Cross for Best Teleplay), three Golden Globe awards, and the prestigious Peabody award.

In her autobiography, Cammermeyer reviews the reasons she joined the U.S. military:

My belief—born in my earliest years living across from Nazi headquarters—that there are values worth dying for, now found expression. The idea of liberty and justice for all is worth dying for—and worth living twenty-six years in uniform for. It's not an esoteric concept. American soldiers, many who gave their lives, rescued me and my parents, our town and country, from Nazi conquest and tyranny. Though I was only three when our liberation came, it was and remains the event that made the rest of my life, my freedom and my family's freedom, possible.


Cammermeyer, Margarethe. Serving in Silence. NY: Penguin, 1994.

Clutter, Stephen. "Cammermeyer Challenges Metcalf," in Seattle Times, November 18, 1997.

Lindop, Laurie. Champions of Equality. NY: Twenty-first Century Books, 1997.

Mills, Kim I. "Lesbian Colonel No Longer Silent about Military Policy," in The [New London] Day. January 3, 1995.

Sanborn, Margaret. "Viking Welcomes to List Lesbian Army Nurse," in Publisher's Weekly. June 6, 1994.

related media:

Serving in Silence, starring Judy Davis and Glenn Close, produced by Barbra Streisand and Glenn Close, 1995.

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Cammermeyer, Margarethe (1942—)

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