Air Force veteran’s ‘undesirable’ discharge lifted 60 years later

A triumph over 60 years in the making for Helen Grace James came earlier this month. James was a former U.S. Air Force airman 2nd class, who in 1955 was one of many enlistees under investigation by Air Force officials for “undesirable” sexuality. The large-scale effort, known as The Lavender Scare, was to identify and remove gay and lesbian personnel in the Air Force. Similar to The Red Scare — a directive to identify possible communists — suspected gay men, and lesbians, were also considered disruptive and susceptible to blackmail, so, therefore, were seen as a security risk in government or military service. All U.S. armed forces members were ordered to inform on those suspected to be gay or lesbian.

James’ less-than-honorable, and defamatory, discharge status left here with no severance pay, insurance or other benefits. It wasn’t until the 1960s that James had her status partially upgraded from “undesirable” to “general discharge under honorable conditions.” But he still faced obstacles.

“I tried to get USAA coverage for insurance, and they said ‘No, you can’t be a member, because you don’t have an honorable discharge,’” James told NBC News. “I [couldn’t] be buried in a national cemetery either.”

Today, at 90 years old, James’ U.S. military service status has been appropriately rectified, following a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month against the U.S. Air Force seeking to upgrade her “undesirable” discharge to “honorable.” In an apparent fast-tracked decision, the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records has agreed to change her status.

“The Board has decided to upgrade Helen’s discharge status to Honorable,” James’s attorney,  J. Cacilia Kim, told The Washington Post. “Helen is thrilled, and we are happy that the Air Force has corrected at least a part of the injustice that was done to Helen (and other LGBT service members) over 62 years ago.”

Before finding out that the Air Force granted her status upgrade, James admitted to NBC News, “It will make me feel like I’ve done all I can to prove I am a good person, and that I deserve to be a whole civilian in this country I love.”

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