Nelson Henry turns 96 in a few days. At his birthday party, he will also be able to finally celebrate receiving the “honorable” military discharge status he was wrongfully denied in 1945 because of his race.
Back in 1945, the Army gave Mr. Henry a “blue discharge”—so named because it was printed on blue paper. Technically neither honorable nor dishonorable, the blue discharge nonetheless carried a powerful stigma. It excluded Mr. Henry from many jobs. It also cut off his GI benefits. Instead of enrolling in dental school—where he had been granted a conditional acceptance before he enlisted—he was forced to drive a cab.
Mr. Henry was not alone: 47,000 soldiers got blue discharges from the Army. African Americans like Mr. Henry got about 10,000 of them—22.2%, even though they made up only about 6.5% of the Army. Gays and lesbians also got a disproportionate share too: about 5,000.
Blue discharges were considered “administrative” and therefore avoided the formal court martial process, which meant, among other things, that the rules of evidence didn’t apply, and accused servicemembers had no right to an attorney. In Mr. Henry’s case, three alleged infractions, all trivial, were enough.
In 1945, the NAACP and the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper led a campaign to abolish the blue discharges. And in 1946, a congressional report found them discriminatory and recommended they be ended. The military eliminated them in 1947, but did not automatically upgrade blue discharges that had already been given. The Veterans’ Administration continued to deny blue dischargees GI benefits, in spite of the generous language of the GI Bill, which guaranteed benefits to all but dishonorable discharges.
Mr. Henry’s son Dean saw a program about Legal Aid at Work’s client Helen James, a 91 year-old lesbian who finally received her honorable discharge nearly 50 years after she was discharged as “undesirable” for being a lesbian.
By the time Dean Henry had contacted Legal Aid at Work, his dad had nearly given up hope of ever fixing this decades-old wrong.
Legal Aid at Work has joined with the Golden Gate Law School Veterans Advocacy Clinic to fight for Mr. Henry. After the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a story about Mr. Henry’s case, both of his U.S. Senators appealed to the Army to expedite the application, which the Army did.
On June 3, 2019, Dean received the envelope containing his dad’s upgrade decision. In a detailed and unanimous 18-page decision, the Army Board awarded Nelson Henry an honorable discharge.
In a story in the Inquirer, Mr. Henry called the “honorable” discharge decision a “miracle.”
One of Mr. Henry’s attorneys, Elizabeth Kristen from Legal Aid at Work said. “It was a privilege to represent Mr. Henry and to see a small bit of justice finally served for him especially in time for his 96th birthday. I hope other veterans see this story and come forward to have this type of wrong corrected before it’s too late.”