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social sciences

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Cammermeyer, Margarethe (b. 1942)  
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The highest-ranking official in the United States military to acknowledge her homosexuality while in the service, Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer successfully challenged the military's policy banning homosexuals prior to the implementation of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." She served a number of years in the Washington State National Guard as an open lesbian.

Cammermeyer was born in Oslo, Norway on March 24, 1943, while the country was under Nazi occupation. Both active in the resistance movement, her parents sheltered resistance fighters and smuggled weapons to the underground. She credits their actions, specifically that of her mother and other women, for laying the foundation of her later interest in defending democratic ideals as a woman in the military.

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Cammermeyer's parents also inspired her interest in medicine. Her father was a doctor who became a well-respected neuroanatomist and neuropathologist in Norway and later in the United States; her mother had worked as a Red Cross nurse prior to her marriage.

Soon after the end of World War II, Cammermeyer's father received a Rockefeller Fellowship, which allowed him and his family to live for nine months in Boston. In 1951, the family immigrated to the United States in order for her father to take a position with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Nine years old at the time, Cammermeyer found the adjustments in language and culture difficult. This difficulty may have been exacerbated by the fact that she was very tall for her age and had already developed interests in science and sports, pursuits that were not considered "feminine."

Although Cammermeyer was interested in pursuing her father's profession, he refrained from encouraging or even supporting her in her academic pursuits, believing that women should be subservient to men. He placed much greater value on the goals and accomplishments of his three sons than he did on his daughter's aspirations.

Consequently, even though Cammermeyer entered the University of Maryland in the fall of 1959 in hopes of becoming a doctor, she was unable to follow through on this dream. The pressures of taking pre-med courses, the strain of working to support herself, and the difficulty of adjusting to the freedoms that college life afforded her all took their toll. After her first semester, she was placed on academic probation. She dropped out of the pre-med curriculum and decided to pursue a nursing career.

In 1960, Cammermeyer became an American citizen. In 1961, to help pay for her education, she joined the U.S. Army and signed up for the Army Student Nurse Program. She received her B. S. in Nursing from the University of Maryland in 1963.

After college, Cammermeyer reported for active duty and completed basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, following which she spent an additional six months at Martin Army Hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia. Once trained, she was stationed in Nuremburg, Germany.

Throughout college and her early years in the military, Cammermeyer often felt different and out of place. As a high school student, she had ascribed these feelings to her height and to her status as an immigrant. In college, she experienced serious bouts of depression, confusion, and self-alienation. Her responses ranged from cutting herself and drinking heavily to refocusing her energy on her courses or career and further repressing these difficult emotions.

Cammermeyer also felt very little interest in dating or having sexual relationships with men. Although she went on blind dates that her friends set up, she never felt inclined to pursue these liaisons.

In August 1964, however, while she was stationed in Germany, friends of hers set her up with a serviceman, Harvey Hawken, a Second Lieutenant in an armor battalion in the United States Army. Not only did he match her in height, but he also shared many other values with her. The two soon became a couple, and in spite of her ambivalence and subtle sense of losing her independence, Cammermeyer agreed to marry him.

In August 1965, the soldiers were married. In 1966, they requested transfers to Fort Lee, Virginia, a request that the Army approved.

The couple returned to the United States just as its involvement in Vietnam was escalating. They both decided to volunteer to serve in the conflict. Even though the Army canceled Hawken's orders at the last minute, Cammermeyer decided to complete her tour of duty, hoping he would soon join her.

Cammermeyer spent fourteen months in Vietnam working at the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh. During her tour of duty, she served as head nurse of a medical unit and then as head nurse of the neurosurgical intensive care unit. Eventually her husband arrived in Vietnam and after a few months of being stationed far apart, the couple secured housing together.

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Margarethe Cammermeyer at a SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network) function in Los Angeles in 2001. Photograph by Angela Brinskele.
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