History of VA in 100 Objects
Telling VA's story - two objects at a time
If you wanted to create an album of your family’s history but were limited to 100 items, what would you put in and what would you leave out? These were the questions that the VA History staff asked in compiling the History of VA in 100 Objects virtual exhibit. The exhibit explores the history of the nation’s efforts to honor and reward Veterans for their service by spotlighting objects that tell key parts of the VA story. The objects span the centuries, from the earliest laws governing disability claims for Revolutionary War soldiers to the latest medical gear to protect VA workers and Veterans from the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibit is being published serially throughout 2022, with new entries appearing every Thursday at the rate of two per week. Entries from previous weeks are available for viewing on the GALLERY PAGES (CLICK OBJECTS 1-30; 31-CURRENT). We hope you will join us as we embark on this year-long journey through VA’s past, object by object.
Object 31: Serving in Silence
By Katie Rories, Historian, Veterans Health Administration
Former VA nurse and Army National Guard Colonel (Ret.) Margarethe Cammermeyer believes that people should, in her words, “live their truth.” But her own efforts to abide by that credo led to her dismissal from the military in 1992 for disclosing her sexual orientation as a lesbian. Her legal battle for reinstatement inspired the 1995 television movie Serving in Silence, starring Glenn Close and produced by Barbra Streisand. After her victory in court, Cammermeyer continued to fight for LGBTQ rights throughout the remainder of her career at VA and in the National Guard and for more than two decades after her retirement.
Cammermeyer was born in Nazi-occupied Norway during World War II. She later immigrated to the United States with her family and became an American citizen in 1960. She enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 19 through the service’s Student Nurse program. After completing her training, she was initially stationed in the U.S. and Germany before requesting an assignment in Vietnam in 1967. The Army sent her to the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh, where she led a neurosurgical intensive care unit and earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service.
Her time on active duty came to an abrupt end when Cammermeyer, who had married an Army officer, became pregnant. The Army discharged her and she embarked on a new career as a registered nurse with VA. In 1970, she went to work at the VA Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. Two years later, a change in Army policy allowed her to join the Washington State National Guard. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Cammermeyer juggled her VA and reserve duties, while also earning a master’s degree in nursing (followed by a PhD in 1991) and raising a family of four children. She eventually rose to the rank of Colonel in the Guard. At VA, Cammermeyer received the agency’s highest award for Excellence in Nursing in 1985. She was lauded “for improving the quality of care and the quality of life for patients with neurodysfunction and developing a growth model of self-care which was incorporated into the curriculum at other nursing schools.”
By the late 1980s, Cammermeyer was one of the most respected nurses at VA and she had ambitions of becoming Chief Nurse of the Army National Guard. But it was at this juncture in her life that she also came to terms with her sexual identity and accepted herself as a gay woman. She openly stated this fact during a routine security-clearance interview conducted when she applied to the Army War College in 1992. She was, once again, forced out of the military, this time for violating the Pentagon’s longstanding policy against allowing homosexuals to serve. She was the highest-ranking officer to date to be discharged for this cause. Cammermeyer, however, refused to accept her dismissal without fighting back. She took her case to court and won. In June 1994, a judge ruled in her favor and ordered her restored to her former rank. Her lawsuit not only brought her personal vindication but also raised public awareness of the military’s discriminatory treatment of homosexuals.
While her struggle and eventual triumph inspired many, Cammermeyer’s story struck a particular chord with superstar actress and singer Barbra Streisand, who called it “the most important social issue of the decade.” Eager to bring the story to a wider audience, Streisand met with Cammermeyer and signed on to produce a made-for-tv movie about her experiences. Cammermeyer was portrayed in the film by actress Glenn Close, who shared executive producing credits with Streisand. The movie Serving in Silence, based on Cammermeyer’s memoir of the same name, premiered in February 1995 on NBC. The film, like the true-life story it recounted, was groundbreaking for it was broadcast at a time when LGBTQ representation and plotlines were rarely seen on network television. The highly praised drama earned many honors, including a Peabody Award and three Emmys.
Cammermeyer herself retired in 1997 after 27 years at three VA medical centers on the West Coast and 31 years of service in the Army and the Army National Guard. Hardly one to rest on her laurels, she remains an outspoken advocate for social justice and equality.
Object 32: U.S. Colored Troops Burial Petition
By Richard Hulver, Historian, National Cemetery Administration
|Section of the petition with the names of some of the 443 African American soldiers seeking the right to burial in the Soldiers' Cemetery at Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. (National Archives)|
Just after Christmas in 1864, African American soldiers recuperating at the United States Colored Troops (USCT) L ‘Overture General Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, submitted a petition for the right to burial alongside their White counterparts in the city’s Soldiers' Cemetery, one of the first national cemeteries established by the U.S. government during the Civil War. To accompany the petition, the aggrieved soldiers included their names—443 in total—arranged by hospital ward and pasted together into a single roll that stretched nearly ten feet in length when unfolded.
Alexandria’s proximity to the nation’s capital, along with its railroads and Potomac River access, made it a key strategic military center and a place of sanctuary for those who had escaped slavery. The Union Army quickly occupied the city after Virginia seceded and it became the hub from which food, ammunition, forage, and soldiers traveled to Virginia battlefields. It also became a hospital center for sick and wounded soldiers from those battlefields. Numerous “contrabands”—the U.S. government’s designation for formerly enslaved African Americans who took refuge behind Union lines—congregated in the city as well. Black Union soldiers became a presence after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, permitting the War Department to enlist African Americans without restriction in USCT regiments.
Much of the military activity in Alexandria centered around the Army’s Quartermaster Department, which was responsible for moving and supplying troops. Brevet Colonel James C. Lee supervised Alexandria’s quartermaster activities from 1863 to 1866. One of his duties was overseeing the burial of military dead in the area. Albert Gladwin, a White Baptist minister from the North who served as Superintendent of Contrabands in the city, worked concurrently with the military. Gladwin established the Contraband and Freedmen’s Cemetery to bury African Americans who died, largely from disease contracted in overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.
Control between the military and Contraband Administration blurred with the arrival of the USCT. Quartermaster Lee set aside a plot in the Soldiers’ Cemetery for Black soldiers and some were buried there. Gladwin, however, felt that these dead were his responsibility and he proceeded to bury about 120 in his cemetery. The issue of where these men should be interred came to a head when hospitalized soldiers in the USCT made known that they would only escort their dead for burial in the military cemetery. The following day, Gladwin posted guards at the gates of the military cemetery, stopped a Black burial escort, arrested its hearse driver, and diverted the body to the Contraband and Freedmen’s Cemetery. That night, African American soldiers created their petition, which was forwarded to Colonel Lee. They presented their case in stirring language that still possesses the power to move:
We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U.S. Army, we have cheerfully left the comforts of home, and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers, to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion. As American citizens, we have a right to fight for the protection of her flag, that right is granted, and we are now sharing equally the dangers and hardships in this mighty contest, and should share the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers who only differ from us in color.
The authority for resolving the dispute rested with Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs. Lee wrote to Meigs that “the feeling on the part of the colored soldiers is unanimous to be placed in the military cemetery and it seems but just and right that they should be.” Meigs wholeheartedly agreed. He ordered all Black soldiers to be buried in the military cemetery and had those already in the segregated cemetery reinterred so they could be laid to rest alongside their comrades in arms of either color. Gladwin was removed from his position two weeks later.
Have an idea for an object? Let us know!
We have worked hard to capture VA’s complex and varied history in the exhibit, but our list of 100 objects is not set in stone. We invite readers to submit their own suggestions of objects to include in the exhibit. Send your ideas to VAHistoryOffice@va.gov. If we like your suggestion, we will write it up and give you full credit when the entry on your object appears on the website.
CLICK BELOW for the 100 Objects gallery pages to see all previous entries in the exhibit.