Airman Second Class Helen Grace James wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and her great-grandfather and serve in her country’s military.
But her service was cut short after she was investigated, interrogated and then given an “undesirable” discharge from the Air Force because she was a lesbian, the Washington Post reported.
Now, more than 60 years later, she is suing the Air Force.
James, now 90, joined the military in 1952 as a radio operator. She was 25, and she planned to make it her career, according to the Post. Instead, on a Friday night in 1955, James and another female service member were followed by police from the base as they went to dinner, the Post reported.
Within days, James was arrested, and, after a lengthy interrogation described by the Post as “humiliating,” she received an “undesirable discharge” on March 3, 1955.
James was subjected to the investigation during the time of the “Lavender Scare,” a Cold War-era persecution of gays and lesbians working for the federal government.
While she went on to become a successful physical therapist, the undesirable discharge continued to haunt her, according to the Post. Even though she was able to have her discharge upgraded to a “general under honorable conditions” in the 1960s, she cannot receive benefits such as the GI Bill or insurance coverage.
So last year, she applied to the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records for an upgrade to an honorable discharge.
She has faced her fair share of bureaucratic hurdles: her records were destroyed in a fire in the 1970s, leaving her claim in limbo. Then, she was informed that they had reached a decision but were waiting for the board’s executive director to sign it. That was in November, according to the Post.
Last week, James filed her lawsuit.
“It has crippled her throughout her life,” her attorney, J. Cacilia Kim, told The Post. “This is really so she’s not treated as a second-class citizen anymore.”