When H. Edward Spires was just 20 years old, he decided to serve his country by joining the military. Because he was a gay man in a very different time, though, he was removed through an “undesirable” discharge.
On Monday, the 91-year-old Connecticut man has finally received the honorable discharge he was denied 68 years ago.
In 1946, he joined what was then called the U.S. Army Air Force and became a chaplain’s assistant at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Spires quickly took to the work, which included writing letters to families worried about their loved ones, playing organ during Catholic Mass and preparing the chapel for various services.
These might sound like simple tasks, but they carried a certain hefty importance in the years following World War II, which cost roughly 419,000 Americans their lives.
And Spires did it well, being promoted from private to sergeant in a year and a half, a title change that actually required four separate promotions. It’s even more impressive when one considers he was doing all of it with a daunting secret.
In the 1940s armed forces, the presence of a gay man like Spires was more than a little unwelcome.
Knowing this, he kept his head down and hid who he was — at least when he was on the base. At night, he’d disappear under the cover of the big city to meet with people with whom he could be open about his sexuality.
“I lived closeted except when I was off base,” Spires told NBC News. “I never did anything pertaining to being gay on the base. … I had to leave the base in order to go to a gay bar.”
While he had to keep his secret, things were relatively painless until October 1947, when the base’s commander, Col. Hokes, announced his plans to “clean up the base of homosexuals.”
Dovetailing unfortunately with this announcement was Spires’s attendance of a Halloween party at a bar off-base. For it, he donned a clever conceptual costume, dressing as the tagline for Oxydol laundry soap — the Oxydol Sparkle.
As the name implies, the costume was eye-catching.
“I was very sparkly and that was taken as being in drag,” Spires told NBC News. “Someone at the party recognized me and said, ‘Ah-ha! He must be gay.'”
All hell broke loose for Spires.
He was dragged into the judge advocate’s office, according to a complaint filed in federal court on his behalf decades later. There he was repeatedly asked if he was gay. Urging him to say “yes,” they threatened to throw him in a stockade “and tell the other prisoners that Mr. Spires was a homosexual,” the complaint says.
“I was interrogated for two hours,” Spires told NBC News. “It seemed like an eternity. It was grueling. They said to empty my pockets. I had an address book and he kept asking, ‘Who are these people in your address book?’ Even relatives who had the same surname.”
His family didn’t know he was gay, and his mother was coming to visit him at the base in a few days.
“I can’t tell you how terrible it was,” Spires said. “I couldn’t tell her, ‘I can’t spend days with you because I’m on trial.'”
So when he was given the option to end the questioning by confessing to having “passively participated in homosexual acts,” he did so. From there, he was sent to a psychiatrist to help determine his fitness for service. The doctor asked if he “ever had [his] d— sucked,” and, according to the lawsuit, when he said “yes,” the psychiatrist determined he was gay.
In March 1948, according to the complaint, “the Air Force gave Mr. Spires an undesirable discharge for reason of homosexuality. He was given a set of civilian clothes and sent home to his parents in Ohio.”
Scared and ashamed, Spires destroyed his military possessions, such as dog tags, letters written to him during his service and, of course, his court-martial transcripts. Wanting to keep his sexual orientation a secret along with what he called the “horrific and unbearable” experience of receiving an “undesirable” discharge, he created fake documentation of an honorable discharge.
“I could never mention my military service to my family,” Spires told the Hartford Courant.
He never told his parents of his sexuality either. In 1956, he met David Rosenberg, now his partner of 60 years. The two were married in 2009, after Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage, and he came out to his living siblings.
“I got a little happiness out of life because of David,” Spires said.
But something was still missing — Spires wanted to be buried with military honors, something that couldn’t happen with an “undesirable” discharge.
In 2011, a light appeared in Spires’s life. The military overturned its ban on openly gay and lesbian service members, repealing its don’t ask, don’t tell policy.
“I knew then that I could try and get an honorable discharge,” Spires told NBC News.
His pursuit of one initially proved fruitless, as he was told his records had been lost in a 1973 fire, NBC reported. But his luck changed when he was contacted by a group of lawyers at the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic, who filed a federal lawsuit against the Air Force in November.
The timing was apt, but terrifying — Spires spent three weeks in the hospital around that time from a bout with pneumonia.
“The idea that this man of faith who served dutifully as a chaplain’s assistant in the armed forces, who built a life and a career that has brought joy to those around him, would leave this earth considered undesirable in the eyes of his country, it’s unthinkable,” his husband, David Rosenberg, said.
On Monday, as the AP noted, the Air Force upgraded his discharge status to “honorable,” 68 years after he’d been thrown out of the military for being gay.
“My first thought was, ‘It’s about time,'” the 91-year-old Spires told the Hartford Courant. “I can lift my head again.”
He isn’t the only one pleased with the decision. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told the AP the change in status “corrects an incredible injustice.”
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