Civil rights activist, hero honored as grand marshal

Grethe Cammermeyer, distinguished military veteran, hospital commissioner and civil rights activist, will serve as grand marshal of the Whidbey Island Area Fair parade on Military Appreciation Day.  - Record File
Grethe Cammermeyer, distinguished military veteran, hospital commissioner and civil rights activist, will serve as grand marshal of the Whidbey Island Area Fair parade on Military Appreciation Day.
— image credit: Record File

Grethe Cammermeyer was born into a world rife with discrimination and unimaginable horrors. The child of determined resisters to the Nazi occupation of Norway, her mother transported ammunition for the resistance army concealed beneath her infant daughter’s stroller blankets in 1942.

As a young adult, Cammermeyer quickly recognized her desire to serve as her parents had done, to fight for freedom and to salve the wounds of the injured and desolate.

After a lengthy and distinguished military career, — service as a lieutenant head nurse in Vietnam, where she was awarded a bronze star, and as a highly respected colonel and chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard — Cammermeyer made a decision in 1989 that would propel her into the national spotlight as a key figure in the movement for gay and lesbian rights — she admitted to being a lesbian.

The rest, literally, is history. A landmark case permitted Cammermeyer, and hundreds of others like her, to retain their military careers and their personal integrity simultaneously.

Cammermeyer continued her military service for three more years after the Supreme Court ruled her discharge unconstitutional. Even after her military retirement, Cammermeyer has never stopped serving those whose freedom she fought so bravely to preserve.

Today, from their picturesque home overlooking the Langley shore, Cammermeyer and her wife, Dianne Divelbess, operate an adult family home. Cammermeyer is also the District 1 Commissioner for Whidbey General Hospital, and has continued to work for equality for the LGBT community, services for veterans, the elderly and others.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, Cammermeyer will be honored once more as grand marshal of the Whidbey Island Area Fair parade as a part of the fair’s Military Appreciation Day.

Cammermeyer said it is extremely important for service members to have the support of their community.

“Young people in the military don’t know anything other than war and deployment,” she said, adding that many servicemen and servicewomen have experienced “extraordinary peril.”

Letting them know they are welcome home, that we “cherish them and their contributions,” is crucial, she explained. “After Vietnam there was no welcome home and it was a very difficult time,” she added.

Cammermeyer said she is honored to be leading the parade on a day honoring fellow service members.

“It feels particularly nice to represent the old guard and thank those serving today… It is very meaningful.”

Cammermeyer and her wife, who is the president of the fair association, often work together on respective projects. They also each hold the Whidbey community close to heart — the couple was married by the mayor of Coupeville on the first day of legalized gay marriage in Washington — and work as a dynamic team giving back to the community in various ways.

Along with her professional commitments, Cammermeyer said that Divelbess often asks for her assistance in maintenance duties around the fairgrounds.

“I’m the grunt,” Cammermeyer joked. “Whenever Diane gets an idea of something to be done, I try to pitch in … it becomes a family affair [Cammermeyer’s sons sometimes helps as well].”

Divelbess has also been working alongside Cammermeyer to ensure that discussions about the need for improved mental health care for service members and other community members are at the forefront in Langley and beyond.

Cammermeyer stressed that the most important part of Saturday’s event and her position as grand marshal is the recognition and appreciation of service members. She will also deliver a speech as a part of the event.

Every day of the fair, active duty personnel, dependents and veterans receive a 37.5 percent discount and may purchase admission tickets for $5. On Saturday, active duty personnel will receive an 80 percent discount while veterans and dependents receive a 50 percent discount. Children 5 and under are free.

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