On the front page of her website, retired Army Reserve Colonel Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer encourages people to “Live their Truth.” For 80 years, Cammermeyer has lived her truth courageously, paving the way for LGBTQ+ rights within the military and while serving as a VA nurse.
Inheriting a fearless spirit from her parents, who fled Nazi occupation in her home country of Norway, Cammermeyer joined the Army when she was 19 and after graduating from nursing school.
Cammemeyer receiving the Bronze Star for bravery in Vietnam.
In 1967, after assignments in the U.S. and Germany, Cammermeyer requested assignment to Vietnam and was stationed at the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh. She served 14 months while leading a neurosurgical intensive care unit.
She was later awarded a Bronze Star for bravery. Shortly after the war, her promising career was undercut by military regulations that involuntarily discharged pregnant women and barred those with young children from serving on active duty.
Advanced degrees in nursing and three more children
While Cammermeyer’s career with the Army Nurse Corps may have been ending, her career at VA was just beginning. In 1970, she began working at the Seattle VA as a registered nurse. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Cammermeyer juggled concurrent careers at VA and the Army Reserve, all while gaining advanced degrees in nursing and having three more children.
Her work didn’t go unnoticed, as she was awarded VA’s “Nurse of the Year” award in 1985 for her work as a neuroscience clinical nurse at the San Francisco VA. She was “Noted for improving the quality of care and the quality of life for patients with neurodisfunction and developing a growth model of self-care which was incorporated into the curriculum at other nursing schools.”
By the late 1980s, Cammermeyer was one of the most decorated and widely respected nurses at VA and in the Army Reserve. It was during this time she grew to learn and accept herself as gay, and she openly stated so in a security clearance interview in an application to attend the Army War College.
Discharged by the Army
She was discriminated again after openly stating her sexual orientation and was discharged from the Army Reserve in 1992 under the military’s longstanding policy against homosexuals serving. She was the highest-ranking officer at the time to be discharged for homosexuality.
Reflecting on her feelings at the time, Cammermeyer stated, “For a long time, it felt like I had to rip open and talk about something that was so personal and yet nobody else’s business. It’s like, what does my sexual orientation have to do with you? And the answer would be nothing. And yet, it had taken on such a negative perspective in society that somebody had to try to flip the switch a bit.”
Cammermeyer pressed back. The legal case she brought forward against the Army National Guard raised public awareness of the military’s policies on homosexuality. In June 1994, a judge ruled in her favor and restored her to her former rank. Reflecting on the ruling, she stated, “It’s so powerful and so vindicating, not just of my own struggle but of thousands of others.”
Portrayed by Glenn Close in TV movie
Her story was memorialized by producers Barbra Streisand and Glenn Close (as Cammermeyer) in the made for television movie, Serving in Silence (1995), based on her memoir of the same name.
In 1997, Grethe Cammermeyer retired from VA after serving 27 years at three different VA Medical Centers (Seattle, San Francisco, and American Lake) and from the Army National Guard after 31 years. Since then, she has devoted her life to fighting anti-gay policies, helping others, and advocating for social justice and equality. Her reflection on speaking out couldn’t be more fitting: “The more you talk, the more people realize we are just like everyone else,” she said.
Podcast explores women Veteran experiences
If you’re interested in hearing more about Colonel Cammermeyer’s story in her own words, we encourage you to listen to the VA History Office’s upcoming podcast series entitled “Reflections from the Front: The Experiences of Women Veterans.”
This series, created by VA History Office Interns Parker Beverly and Hannah Nelson, explores female Veterans’ experiences with the women who lived it. Over the course of the series, you’ll hear from women who served in World War Two and Vietnam. You’ll hear about what drew them to service, their wartime experiences, and what being a Veteran means to them.