Sixty-four years after he was dishonorably discharged from the army, Needham Mayes is fighting against his own clock to get his name cleared so he can be laid to rest with other veterans at a national cemetery.
It was 1955. The military had just been desegregated and 21-year-old Mayes had just arrived at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a private.
Mayes went to a club for noncommissioned officers. One of the white sergeants took offense to him being there and an altercation started. The sergeant was shot, and Mayes was removed in handcuffs. He was immediately court-marshaled and sent home from the Army with a dishonorable discharge. He appealed, but it was denied.
He made a life from himself fighting for social justice in the poor black sections of Brooklyn.
Now as he lays on his death bed, Mayes is fighting for his proper burial in a military cemetery. He has appealed to the Army’s Acting Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy to dismiss the charges and, similar to other recent cases, release him for situations known as “bad paper” discharge.
Such recent practices are the Army’s way of acknowledging that some individuals may have been discharged improperly without “fully honorable conditions”.
His supporters have written numerous letters to the Army in support of Mayes’ request. Friends, family and even the sergeant that was shot have appealed on his behalf.
More than a quarter-million people were discharged from the Army following the Korean War with less than honorable status. In recent years, some former officers have been successful with their appeal, including those who might have been discharged dishonorably for being homosexual.
In 2011, the Obama administration changed its policy that would generally grant an honorable discharge to officers (absent any misconduct) that might otherwise be dismissed for being homosexual.
At the time Needham was in the Army, black servicemen were being court-martialed at an alarming rate. It stands to reason that may often have been racially motivated.
Those discharges have prevented former servicemen from using services available to veterans, including the privilege of being buried in a national cemetery.
Veteran Advocacy Project’s Discharge Upgrade Clinic at the Urban Justice Center has stepped in to help some of the black veterans facing the same issues.
“Needham isn’t alone,” Rob Cuthbert, a former coordinator of the clinic, told reporters. “Going public with his discharge is a brave and final act of service.”