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WASHINGTON – An ailing 91-year-old veteran who was kicked out of the Air Force in 1948 for being gay filed a lawsuit Friday against service Secretary Deborah Lee James, in part so he can have military honors at his funeral.

Edward Spires wants to have his discharge upgraded from “undesirable” to “honorable,” according to the lawsuit filed in Connecticut federal court.

“After being cast out of the Air Force for being a gay man, Ed rarely spoke of his military service or his discharge, humiliated by the Air Force’s labeling of his service as undesirable,” Spires’ husband David Rosenberg said Friday in a news release. “For the past decades, he has been made to feel ashamed.”

Spires has been barred from Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, which stops him from being buried at a VA cemetery or having military honors at his funeral service.

“Mr. Spires does not want to pass knowing that he will not be honored with a military burial and that the Air Force still refuses to acknowledge the sacrifices he made to serve his country with honor,” the lawsuit states.

Spires enlisted in the Air Force in 1946 and served as a chaplain’s assistant. While stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 1947, he was spotted by fellow servicemembers at an off-base Halloween party. One of the airmen mistook Spires’ costume as him dressing as a woman, the suit states.

He was taken to the Judge Advocate General shortly after, according to the suit, and went through a “horrific” and “unbearable” interrogation. Spires was taunted and verbally assaulted by fellow servicemembers. He was later court-martialed and discharged.

Many servicemembers – by some estimates about 100,000 -- were other-than-honorably discharged for being gay from World War II to 2011, when the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed. Since the repeal, some veterans have requested and received upgrades from the Defense Department.

But when Spires applied for an upgrade through the Air Force Board of Corrections of Military Records in 2014, he was rejected, the suit states. In Spires’ case, his records are decades-old, and the board said they were lost in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

He applied again 2016, though it wasn’t clear whether the Air Force would consider it.

Spires filed the lawsuit Friday with the help of the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

Rosenberg, an Army veteran, was also questioned about his sexuality while serving, but he denied being gay. After more than 50 years as partners, the two married in 2009 when Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage.

In a written statement, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he had urged the Defense Department to review of Spires’ case quickly. He also asked the department to consider upgrades for thousands of others.

“There may be thousands of others across the country who are encountering the same difficulties,” Blumenthal said. “The veterans who served during a period of time when discrimination based on sexual orientation was the most severe also face the obstacle of lost or destroyed records. This is no excuse for denying them their right to an honorable discharge.”

Last year, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced a bill ordering timely reviews of discharges that were made under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It also included a provision directing the secretaries of each service to collect oral histories from people discharged to “serve as an official record of such discriminatory policies and their impact on American lives.”

The bill stalled after being sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Spires’ attorney is asking the court upgrade the discharge automatically or order the Air Force to reconsider Spires’ application for an upgrade within two weeks.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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