Gay Air Force Vet seeks Honorable Discharge

Edward Spires, left, stands next to his spouse David Rosenberg, after a press conference held by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale on Friday. (Hartford Courant/Lauren Schneiderman)
Edward Spires, left, stands next to his spouse David Rosenberg, after a press conference held by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale on Friday. (Hartford Courant/Lauren Schneiderman)

H. Edward Spires served as a chaplain's assistant in the Air Force for two years following World War II before his supervisors discovered his secret.

They interrogated him for days. They threatened to throw him in the stockade. They ordered him to see a psychiatrist. Ultimately, they handed him a set of civilian clothes, gave him an "undesirable" discharge and sent him home to his parents in Ohio.

Now 91 and in frail health, Spires and a group of lawyers at the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic are seeking to right a 68-year-old wrong: On Friday, they filed a federal lawsuit against the Air Force seeking to upgrade his discharge status to honorable, a change that would allow him to have a funeral with military honors.

"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," Spires' husband, David Rosenberg, said during a briefing on the case at Yale Law School.

The couple lives in Norwalk; they have been together for nearly six decades, marrying in 2009.

Spires, a retired prop and scenery designer for community theater groups, did not speak during the press conference. He recently suffered pneumonia and he remains medically fragile after spending three weeks in the hospital.

His experience in the Air Force is a relic from an earlier era, when gay men and women were excluded from the military and denied basic civil rights. Gay marriage was a concept few could fathom.

Over the course of his long life, Spires has witnessed enormous social change. "We never thought this day would come that their would be equality and the idea that your private life is your private life," Rosenberg observed. "But it has come and it has been an amazing journey."

Spires joined the U.S. Army Air Force in 1946, at the age of 20. After completing basic training, he was assigned to be a chaplain's assistant at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. His duties included typing letters to distressed families, playing the organ at Catholic Mass and setting up the chapel for services, according to the complaint. Within 18 months, he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Spires built a large group of civilian friends in San Antonio, many of whom were gay. But there were ominous signs: In October of 1947, the commander called a meeting to "clean up the base of homosexuals," the lawsuit states.

At an off-base Halloween party, Spires dressed up as the Oxydol "Sparkle," from the ad campaign for a popular brand of laundry detergent. Someone at the party mistook his costume for drag.

Shortly afterward, Spires was summoned to to the judge advocate's office and asked if he was a "homosexual," the complaint states. When Spires did not initially answer, the master sergeant "threatened to throw him into the stockade and tell the other prisoners that [he] was a homosexual."

"Over the course of an hour-long interrogation, the master sergeant repeatedly asked Mr. Spires if he was gay and requested information about his relationships with many people in the address book that the Master Sergeant confiscated from Mr. Spires's pocket," the lawsuit states. Spires signed a statement saying that he had "passively participated in homosexual acts" in order to end the questioning but he refused to provide the names of other gay soldiers.

In the complaint, Spires described the ordeal as "horrific and unbearable." As word of his interrogation spread across the base, he was taunted and verbally abused by his fellow soldiers. During a hearing that followed, he was never offered access to an attorney. Only his direct supervisor, Father Major John Habitz, stood up for him, the lawsuit said.

After the hearings, Spires was sent to a psychiatrist and, in March of 1948, he was given the "undesirable" discharge.

Veterans with a less than honorable discharge are generally ineligible for a host of military benefits, from educational reimbursement to housing and medical services to the right to military honors at a funeral. But an honorable discharge also confers intangible benefits, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who has advocated on Spires' behalf.

It is literally "a badge of honor," Blumenthal noted. "To be denied it is a basic insult to dignity and self respect that lasts as long as the veteran lives," he said.

Following his discharge from Air Force, Spires seldom mentioned his service. He destroyed all evidence of his time in the military including his dog tags and transcripts of his court martial. And when pressed, he usually said he was discharged for medical reasons, Rosenberg said.

"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," said Rosenberg. "For the past decades, he has been made to feel ashamed despite the fact he served his country honorably."

Spires left Ohio and moved to New York City, working first as a display manager at a Bloomingdale's branch, then starting his own decorative arts company. He moved to Connecticut in 1970, when Rosenberg was offered a high school teaching job in Greenwich.

Rosenberg is also a military veteran and he, too, was questioned by a supervisor about his sexual orientation. But Rosenberg denied being gay and was permitted to stay; he received an honorable discharge in 1956.

The lawsuit is not the first time Spires has sought to change his discharge status. He first submitted an appeal in 2014, following the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding gays and lesbians in the military. But the Air Force Board for Corrections of Military Records rejected the request, saying his personnel records may have been destroyed in a 1973 fire. Other efforts also fell short.

An Air Force spokeswoman, Brooke Brzozowske, said she cannot comment on the pending litigation.

Spires turned 91 last week, and his declining health adds an undertone of urgency to the legal mission.

"We hope the Air Force will remedy this injustice promptly," said Erin Baldwin, a law student intern who is working on the case. "By granting Mr. Spires justice, the Air Force will finally send a message to Mr. Spires and to all veterans who received undesirable discharges for homosexuality, despite their faithful service to our country, that the honor of their service does not depend upon their sexual orientation."

The Associated Press contributed to this story. ___

(c)2016 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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