With help from Yale Law School students and faculty, a 91-year-old veteran from Connecticut was granted a discharge-status upgrade to “honorable” earlier this month.
The veteran, Hubert Edward Spires, was discharged from the U.S. Air Force as “undesirable” in 1948 for being gay. He was notified on Jan. 5 that the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records officially agreed to upgrade his status.
Spires became eligible for a discharge upgrade in 2011 after the under-secretary of defense implemented Congress’ 2010 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law for the purpose of record correction and discharge upgrades. That law had previously prohibited gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military.
The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at the Law School represented Spires when it filed a federal lawsuit last November against Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. The legal team consists of four student interns from the Law School who are supervised by two law professors, Aaron Wenzloff and Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93.
“It was a long haul,” Spires told The New York Times earlier this month. “I got the confirmation that I had been looking for.”
The decision from the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records notes that records will be reviewed to determine if Spires is eligible for monetary benefits because of the records correction. It added that effort would be made to conclude the matter hastily.
According to Erin Baldwin LAW ’17, one of the student interns representing Spires, the legal team is not sure what prompted the Air Force board to make the decision, in part because the case is technically still pending. However, she pointed to a number of possible motivators, including the lawsuit and support from political allies such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, D-Conn.
“No matter the reason, we’re very happy to learn that he has finally, after 69 years, received his honorable upgrade,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin added that Spires probably feels “vindicated” by the decision, which she said he deserved.
The lawsuit filed by the Yale team is not the first time Spires has attempted to change his discharge status. According to the lawsuit, Spires had submitted two discharge upgrade applications, independent of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, since 2011 but both were denied by the Air Force Board for Corrections of Military Records on the grounds that they could not locate Spires’ records due to a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center.
A veteran’s discharge status affects eligibility for various U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs benefits. With an “undesirable” discharge — now known as “other than honorable”— Spires was unable to receive benefits, including financial assistance for housing, disability and burial.
According to the lawsuit, Spires is in poor health and nearly died in late 2016 while receiving intensive care for pneumonia. The suit added that Spires wishes to be buried with military honors, which is only possible with a discharge upgrade.
“I’m very gratified for Ed Spires and his spouse for this decision corrects an incredible injustice,” Blumenthal said in a statement to reporters on Jan. 9. “I’m also hopeful and excited for others who were similarly unjustly discharged with less than honorable status simply because of their sexual orientation. I’ll continue to fight for them.”
Wenzloff told the News in November that the Veterans Legal Services Clinic tends to focus on representing particularly vulnerable veteran populations, including gay and elderly veterans. The clinic’s practice is made possible by a state law that allows law students to represent clients in court as long as the client has consented to the intern’s appearance and a supervising attorney has indicated approval.
The Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records is a directorate of the Air Force Review Boards Agency, which is located in the Jones Building at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.