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Air Force approves discharge upgrade for 91-year-old gay veteran

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 9, 2017

WASHINGTON – Nearly 69 years after Hubert “Edward” Spires was kicked out of the military for being gay, the Air Force has upgraded his discharge status from “undesirable” to “honorable.”

In November, Spires, 91, filed a lawsuit in Connecticut federal court against Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, following two years of fighting with the Board of Military Records for a correction. The Air Force, which previously said it lacked the military records necessary to make the change, signed an upgrade Thursday.

“Mr. Spires and his partner are happy to finally have the discharge status that Mr. Spires deserves and has waited so long for,” Erin Baldwin, a Yale law school student working on Spires’ case, wrote in an email.

An undesirable discharge – referred to as “bad paper” – has barred Spires from Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, including the option of being buried at a VA cemetery or having military honors at his funeral service.

Spires was prompted to appeal his discharge after experiencing health problems.

“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. The lawsuit states he went through a “horrific” and “unbearable” interrogation about his sexuality and was taunted and verbally assaulted by fellow servicemembers at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He was later discharged because of “undesirable habits and traits of character.”

Spires later married David Rosenberg, an Army veteran, when Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.

With help from Yale law school students, Spires first applied for an upgrade in 2014.

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discharged for being gay from World War II to 2011, when the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed.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.

The board responded to Spires at the time that they didn’t have enough information to make a decision. Some of Spires’ military records, which would have told the board whether he was discharged because of his sexual orientation, were likely lost in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

In its latest decision, the board wrote there was enough evidence “to demonstrate the existence of injustice.”

“We believe it is more likely than not the applicant was discharged for his sexual orientation,” read the decision from the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records. “Therefore, in the interest of justice, we believe it is appropriate to recommend his records be corrected.”

In a written statement when Spires filed the lawsuit in November, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked the Defense Department to consider upgrades for thousands of others, in addition to Spires.

“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.”

Nikki.wentling@stripes.com

@nikkiwentling

Edward Spires, left, in 1946.

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