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People Top 5
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- June 15, 1992
- Vol. 37
- No. 23
Discharged from the National Guard for Being a Lesbian, a Decorated Nurse Takes on the Pentagon
"I pulled into work and saw this newspaper box," says the woman who until June 11 was the Guard's chief nurse in Washington State and is perhaps the highest-ranking military officer ever to be discharged for being gay. "My first inclination was to take all the papers out of there so nobody walking by could see the headline." Instead, she went around to a back entrance and ran into a clerk—a Vietnam vet—she had known for years.
"Greta, do you know what the most important thing is to an infantryman?" he asked. "A buddy. And you can be mine and share my foxhole with me anytime."
At that, Greta, a 50-year-old decorated Vietnam veteran and divorced mother of four sons, began to cry. "I had been prepared for rejection," she says. "I thought people would not want to have anything to do with me, that my patients would not want to be under my care any longer." Instead, people came by all day to express their support.
Indeed, at a time when the Pentagon's rule on homosexuality is being challenged by other gays in uniform and by a pending congressional bill to end what Rep. Patricia Schroeder calls "the final bastion of discrimination in the military," top civilian and military brass sympathized. The Army is "senselessly losing an outstanding individual," fumed Washington Gov. William Booth Gardner.
Backing up her talk with action, Cammermeyer will soon file a law-suit in federal court to overturn the Defense Department's policy on gays. "I'm not a young private, and the Army can't beat up on me," she says. "They have to deal with the career that I have already served."
Her stellar, 26-year service record promises to be her greatest strength in court. As an Army nurse, Cammermeyer received the Bronze Star for her 14 months in Vietnam, and in 1985 the VA named her Nurse of the Year over 34,000 others. A specialist in neuroscience, she holds a doctorate in nursing from the University of Washington. As a civilian, she runs a sleep lab and seizure clinic at American Lake.
Born in Norway, the eldest of four children and the only girl, Cammermeyer remembers growing up "very alone, feeling different and alienated"—due, she believed, to the old-country ways of her family, who worked for the anti-Nazi resistance and immigrated to Maryland in 1952. "Nobody talked about sexuality," she says. "I was just sort of an asexual being." Still, after receiving her nursing degree from the University of Maryland in 1963, she joined the Army and married Harvey Hawken, a tank commander, in 1965. After their Vietnam tours, they settled on a Washington farm, and the boys were born—Matt, now 23, David, 19, Andy, 17, and Tom, 15.
"It was a very good marriage," she recalls of her 16-year union. "But it was not enough. I was not aware at that time that I was a lesbian." Adds Jane Samonds, a longtime friend and colleague at the VA: "Her husband was the old-fashioned type who wanted his wife to stay home and take care of the house and family. He was not supportive of her goals." After "an enormous amount of soul-searching," says Greta, she moved to San Francisco. "I chose not to contest my husband's custody of the kids because I had to deal with a whole bunch of stuff on my own," she says. "But it was a painful divorce."
Today, Greta lives with son Andy in a two-story home in a Seattle suburb. While there are still scars from the divorce, she and her sons are healing. "The relationship I have with my kids is very powerful," she says. Powerful enough that they support her in the fight she is waging now. "Apparently," says son Matt, "marriage was not what she wanted, and she chose the military. Now that military family has disowned her—and I think it's terrible."
JOAN DECLAIRE in Tacoma
- Joan DeClaire.
September 24, 2016
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