Langley vet hails repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

A local pioneer in the fight for the rights of gays and lesbians serving in the military hailed the U.S. Senate’s repeal Friday of the Clinton-era “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

“It was long overdue,” Grethe Cammermeyer of Langley said Sunday after the Senate overturned the law by a 65-31 vote. “It should never have been enacted in the first place.”

“Those in the service can now focus on their military careers without having to worry about a witch hunt, or being targeted and discharged,” she added. “It lifts a huge burden that people have been carrying while serving in uniform under one flag.”

Cammermeyer, 68, spent 31 years in military service and was the first to challenge the previous ruling banning outright the serving of gays and lesbians in the nation’s armed forces.

A native of Norway who immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1951, Cammermeyer graduated from the University of Maryland in 1963. While at college she had enrolled in the Army Student Nurse Program, and joined the Army after graduation.

While serving in Germany, she married a fellow soldier, and together they were sent to Vietnam. They later settled in Seattle, but Cammermeyer, who was pregnant, was forced to resign from the Army because of regulations prohibiting women on active duty from having dependents.

Cammermeyer rejoined the Army reserves in 1972, when the law was changed. Later, after 15 years of marriage and four children, she and her husband divorced.

In 1988, as a colonel, Cammermeyer was named Chief Nurse of the Washington State National Guard. In 1989, during an interview for a top-secret clearance to apply for the War College, she told the military she was a lesbian.

In 1992, she was tossed out of the Guard for violating the military’s rule against the serving of gays and lesbians.

The same day, Cammermeyer sued for reinstatement, and after a 25-month legal battle, a judge ruled the military’s policy was unconstitutional and based on prejudice.

Cammermeyer was reinstated as Chief Nurse of the National Guard in June 1994, and three years later retired with full privileges after

31 years of service. Her 1994 autobiography “Serving in Silence” was followed by a made-for-television movie of the same name starring Glenn Close. The movie received three Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award.

“I never regretted putting on the uniform,” Cammermeyer said Sunday. “It gave me opportunities I never would have had. I’m extremely proud to have served.”

Cammermeyer remains active in the local healthcare community. She is the South End’s representative on Whidbey General Hospital’s board of commissioners, and operates Saratoga View, an adult family home in Langley.

She said the most heartwarming of the events of the past week have been the more than 60 e-mails she has received thanking her for taking up the fight for gays and lesbians in the military at an early stage.

Cammermeyer said the Senate’s action brings closure to “a costly war on humanity” that caused 135,000 military men and women to be forced out of the services through the years, and forced another estimated 66,000 currently serving to keep their sexual orientations secret.

She said it will probably take a few months for “Don’t ask, don’t tell” to become officially dead.

“I would hope the discharges will stop in the meantime,” she said.

Cammermeyer said she and her family toasted the repeal a few hours after the Senate vote, and added that she plans to attend this week’s ceremony in Washington, D.C. as President Obama signs the measure into law.

“There couldn’t have been a better Christmas present,” she said.

Meanwhile, Cammermeyer said her early role in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights has resulted in a deluge of media requests for her reaction on “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“I just got off the phone with Australia,” she said.

“It was an old albatross that just needed to go,” she said of the military’s policy on sexual orientation. “We’re there now, and we’re going to be moving ahead.”

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