Grethe Cammermeyer has a fascinating family history that helped shape her eventual fights for LGBT equality. She was born in Oslo, Norway in 1942 during the Nazi occupation. Her family lived across from Nazi headquarters and her parents used her in their exploits as they supported the Norwegian underground in resisting the Nazis. Her mother would conceal guns and rifles under her mattress as she would push her 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. Grethe’s childhood heroes were these strong people who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the freedom they believed in.
Grethe’s family immigrated to the United States in 1951 when she was nine. At 17, she started college at the University of Maryland. In 1961, she joined the Army Student Nurse Program, intent on finishing college and then becoming an Army Nurse.
Lt. Cammermeyer went on active duty after graduation in 1963. Her first active duty assignment was basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas where she learned to salute, wear the uniform, march, and carry patients on litters through the desert terrain of Camp Bullis. Later, she spent six months at Martin Army Hospital at Ft. Benning Georgia, then a longer tour in Nuremberg, Germany. It was here that she met and married a fellow soldier.
In 1967 she was sent to the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh, Vietnam. She was in Vietnam for 14 months, 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, she and her husband settled in Seattle, Washington. She was forced to leave the military when she became pregnant in 1968, because women were not permitted to have dependents. In 1972, that regulation was changed and she returned to the military in the Army Reserves, ultimately achieving the rank of Colonel in 1987. She completed the Nurse Corps Basic and Advance Course, the Command and General Staff Course and Combat Casualty Course.
After 15 years and four wonderful sons, she and her husband divorced. There were problems which she did not understand at the time, but which turned out to be an identity crisis, as she came to understand that she was a lesbian. Grethe remarks that 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, Grethe 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, Grethe told the military "I am a lesbian".
She was separated from the military despite an exemplary military and civilian professional record. On that same day, 11 June 1992, her attorneys filed suit, on my behalf, in Federal District Court in Seattle challenging the existing ban on homosexuals in the military and requesting her reinstatement. They 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.
She was reinstated in the National Guard in June of 1994 and resumed her previous position as Chief Nurse. In March 1997, after 31 years of dedicated service to America she was retired with full military privileges.
Grethe has received many honors and won many awards during the course of her military service. She was the first recipient of the Administrator's Award for Excellence in Nursing in 1985, chosen out of 34,000 registered nurses in the VA. Her other awards and honors include the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service (Vietnam), Nurse of the Year by the Department of Veterans Affairs (1985), and Woman of Power