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2015 DAVA recipient

2015 Distinguished Alumni Veteran Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, M.A. ’76, Ph.D. ’91, U.S. Army

by Hannelore Suderman
Columns Magazine

Courage comes in many forms. Retired Army Col. Grethe Cammermeyer — nurse, Vietnam veteran, Bronze Star recipient and civil rights champion — mustered yet another form of courage to disclose that she was a lesbian, even though it meant she would lose her job in the military.

This year’s UW Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Veteran Award recipient, Cammermeyer is lauded for leading the way for gays in the military. But her story is filled with examples of courage from nursing injured soldiers in war and pursuing a military career when women did not have many opportunities to sharing even the most painful moments of her personal story.

Cammermeyer, ’76, ’91, started active duty as an Army nurse in 1963. After training and serving abroad, she volunteered to go to Vietnam, where she ultimately became the head nurse of the neurosurgical intensive care unit. After Vietnam, when she was back stateside, married and pregnant with her first child, she was forced into taking an involuntary discharge because military policy dictated that women with babies could not serve in active duty.

“You didn’t take it as a frustration,” she recalls. “You just took it as a deal that you made. If you wanted to have a family, you left the Army.” But Cammermeyer wasn’t ready to end her military career just yet. “When the policy was changed,” she says, “I immediately started the paperwork to get into the reserves.”

While raising four sons and working at VA hospitals in Washington, Cammermeyer earned a master’s degree in nursing at the UW in 1976. But she sought something more. “I wanted to do something at a higher level,” she says, explaining her choice to return to school. “I wanted to be the best “neuro” nurse around.” She completed her Ph.D. in 1991.

In the middle of it all, with school, work, children and the reserves, “something went tilt and I didn’t want to be married anymore,” she says. While she was certain of herself professionally, she wasn’t sure about her personal life. Divorced, having lost custody of her sons, she immersed herself in her work. “The time was emotionally traumatic,” she recalls. “I was near-suicidal.”

In 1988, Cammermeyer became chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard. Around that time, she met her future wife, Diane Divelbess, and her personal life became clear. During a security interview to vet her as a candidate for the War College, she revealed her sexual orientation. “I said I was a lesbian, owning it out loud for the first time,” she says. “For me, it was a matter of honesty.”

 

Established in 2012, the Distinguished Alumni Veteran Award (DAVA) is given to a living University of Washington alumnus veteran who made a positive impact on the local, national or international community, the University of Washington or the veterans’ community. Our previous award recipients distinguished themselves both in community service and in their professional lives.

Read her remarks from the Nov. 11 Veteran’s Day ceremony.

View images of the Veteran’s Day ceremony.

For more information about DAVA and the previous recipients, visit uwalum.com/dava.

Photo credit: Matt Hagen