A highly regarded military nurse is discharged for being a lesbian. Based on a true story. [ Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story credits: Dir: Jeff Bleckner/ Glenn Close, Judy Davis, Jan Rubes / 91 min/ Drama/ Social Tolerance, Government as Bigot]
Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer spent twenty-five years in the U.S. military. During that time, she was awarded the bronze star for her performance in Vietnam, won the Veterans Administration “Nurse of the Year” award, and earned ten promotions, rising to the rank of Chief Nurse of the Washington State National Guard. It was her ambition to become Chief Nurse of the entire National Guard, and to that end she completed a Ph.D. in Nursing Science. She was by all accounts a credit to the U.S. military. Nonetheless, she was promptly court marshaled and discharged after she revealed, in response to routine security clearance questioning, that she was a lesbian. The military has a strict rule of discharging all gays and lesbians.
This telling of her story is a wonderful indictment of this rule, and of discrimination by government generally, in part because it’s such a clear case. Cammermeyer’s commendable service record and spotless reputation meant that no real basis for complaint could be made against her. The military’s only explanation for discharging her was “it’s just our policy.”
As Serving in Silence makes clear, Cammermeyer’s discharge was actually a double irony. Not only was she discharged in spite of being an exemplary soldier but in fact because of it. After she revealed that she was a lesbian, it was suggested to her that she might recant and all would be forgotten. But she felt that, as an officer, it would be a violation of her sworn duty to be anything less than scrupulously honest. She could have lied but chose not to, something of a novelty in an age when sworn oaths are considered by government officials to be nothing more than a trifling and inconvenient formality.
That integrity, that sense of right, compelled her to do what she did next—fight back. However, a legal battle meant public exposure for herself and her conservative family. She was already separated from her husband but was concerned how her kids might react. The scenes between Cammermeyer and her family—as she explains what she’s doing, and ultimately wins them over—are touching to see.
The credit for this, and for most of what else is good about Serving in Silence, has to go to Glen Close, who is just terrific as the hard-nosed Cammermeyer. (Close won an Emmy for her performance, as did supporting actress Judy Davis.) Close also coproduced.
Much is made in the film of Norwegian-born Cammermeyer’s heritage, and when it is suggested early on that she give up, she replies, “Vikings die with their swords in hand, don’t you know that?” In real life, that “never give up” attitude ultimately carried the day. Following her military discharge, dramatized here, she fought it in court, won, and was reinstated. Despite continued attempts by the Clinton administration to have her removed, she remained in her job until retiring three years later.