After a 60 year battle, Air Force Veteran Helen Grace James is finally given her long awaited — and well-deserved — honorable discharge.
In 1955, America was in the depths of the Lavender Scare — a time when homosexuals were fired in the United States Government — and Airman Second Class Helen Grace James was taken into custody for suspicion of being gay. She was one of thousands targeted during the nation's witch hunt.
After hours of interrogation, she was told that if she did not sign the documents initiating her discharge, OSI (the Office of Special Investigations — kind of like the FBI for the Air Force) would "out her" to her family and friends. She told The Washington Post, "When they threatened to go to my parents, I just said that was it," and so, under that duress, she signed the documents and ultimately ended her military career.
Indicative of the changing times, a rainbow flag is placed in the ground for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month during the Picnic in the Park at Nussbaumer Park, June 27, 2015, in Fairbanks, Alaska. More than 200 flags were handed out to members of the 354th Fighter Wing and members of the local community. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor/Released)
She was discharged as "undesirable" and was denied any benefits, insurance, or severance.
Unable to face her family and without any assistance from the GI Bill, James moved to California and worked to pay for her own education, advancing her way through degrees in Physical Therapy.
In the 1960s she managed to change her status as "undesirable" to "general discharge under horrible conditions." Despite the upgrade, her status still caused her difficulties. "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. I [couldn't] be buried in a national cemetery either," she recalled to NBC.
And so, at the age of 90, she finally decided to apply for the "honorable" discharge upgrade with the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records. After a series of delays, James filed a lawsuit and on Jan. 24, 2018, was finally granted her honorable discharge.
U.S. Air Force veteran Helen James with her military memorabilia. (Photo courtesy of Helen James)
For more than six decades, James has been discriminated against by the military for who she is and at long last can rest, vindicated.
"I'm still trying to process it. It was both joy and shock. It was really true. It was really going to be an 'honorable discharge.'"