When Army veteran John Spencer Jr. returned home from the Vietnam War at 21 years old, he was immediately stripped of his dog tags, uniform and dignity.
“It was almost like being a criminal,” Spencer said.
Instead of being recognized as a war hero, Spencer was given an other-than-honorable discharge. For more than 50 years, he was denied the veteran status, military honors and education, job and health benefits he deserved.
“Knowing that I had a discharge like that, I couldn’t really ask for help,” Spencer said. “I held it within.”
But all that changed Thursday, when Spencer, 73, was pinned with a Purple Heart, a combat infantryman badge and a Vietnam Gallantry Cross outside the law school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“All I really wanted was when they laid me to rest they just drape that flag across my coffin,” said Spencer.
He never gave up the fight for that recognition and sought help from the UNC School of Law’s Military and Veterans Law Clinic. The clinic provides pro bono legal support for low-income former service members looking to upgrade or correct their military discharge status.
“The shame is gone,” Spencer said in his newly decorated blue sport coat. “The dignity is back.”
Restoring veteran status and healthcare
More than 100 people, including law students, ROTC cadets, university trustees and state political leaders gathered to witness Spencer’s long-awaited honors. Spencer’s daughter and brother, who both served in the military for decades, sat proudly in the audience as the awards were pinned to his chest.
The Purple Heart ceremony would never have happened without Carolina law students who worked with Spencer for three years to restore his federal veteran status.
“For this team to carry this through to make sure my dad got this while he’s still alive is very emotional and a very proud moment,” Spencer’s daughter, Sonya Dewberry, said.
Since 2018, the clinic has helped dozens of veterans with an other-than-honorable discharge get access to benefits and health care that they deserved but never received. In 2020, UNC-CH’s clinic formed a partnership with N.C. Central University’s law school to serve former service members who’ve been prohibited from receiving proper health care and disability benefits because of their discharge status.
About 10% of North Carolinians are active-duty military service members or veterans, Law School Dean Martin Brinkley said in his remarks at the ceremony. North Carolina is also home to eight military bases, four of which are some of the largest and most strategically important in the U.S., Brinkley said.
Spencer grew up in Mount Airy and was drafted as a teenager in 1969. He trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Knox in Kentucky. Spencer served as an Army armored reconnaissance specialist in the infantry in South Vietnam, where he was hit in the neck with shrapnel. As a Black soldier, Spencer said he also faced discrimination and violent racism.
When Spencer came back, his younger brother Byron was about 6 years old. He ran up the stairs, greeted his older brother at the door and then went off to play. Byron had no understanding of his brother’s military service or sacrifice, then or in the years to follow.
Spencer never really talked about his experience in the military, colleagues he’d lost or the nature of his discharge, Byron Spencer said, even though he was also in the Army.
“It wasn’t until recently that I understood what he went through,” Byron Spencer said. “It feels so good that he is able to get this recognition and, most importantly, that he’s still here.”
‘Back into the military family’
In Spencer’s case, Carolina law students used military and health records to appeal his discharge on the grounds of discrimination and protocol violations. They also learned that Spencer was wounded during the war, earning him a Purple Heart.
The Purple Heart is the oldest active military award in the U.S. and originated during the Revolutionary War.
“Our clinics train the next generation of public servants and leaders by providing them an opportunity to help bring people back into the military family,” said distinguished Army veteran and clinical associate law professor John Brooker. Lieutenant colonel Brooker is a Carolina law graduate and the director of the Military and Veterans Law Clinic.
Brooker said tens of thousands of North Carolinians, like Spencer, have been improperly or unfairly ejected from the military family because of their discharge type or characterization. That often happens because of the misunderstanding of mental health and its impact on behavior, discrimination and the changing of societal norms, Brooker said.
Brooker’s students help veterans qualify for the full range of Veterans Affairs benefits, including healthcare for the rest of their life.
“That not only matters for pride and honor,” Brooker said. “It matters for real life-saving reasons.”
The clinic is a valuable experiential learning opportunity for Carolina law students that helps prepare them for the professional world.
“As a first-generation lawyer and future judge advocate … I know I am exactly where I need to be in order to make the biggest difference to the community,” Isabelle Stevens said at the ceremony.
Stevens said working in the clinic and on Spencer’s case has done more than shape her view of advocacy and public service. She said it introduced her to a man whose story, challenges, grace and perseverance “made a lasting imprint on my life.”
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