On Monday, for the first time in his life, Needham Mayes was a veteran on Veterans Day.
His hospital bed was far from any parade, but the nation’s recognition of his service was no different from that of his fellow officers marching beneath flying flags. It was an honor hard fought, one that had taken the 85-year-old man’s entire adult life to arrive.
He had been a paratrooper in the Army, among the first black soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., after the military was desegregated. He had an exemplary record for more than two years. It all ended in a bar fight in 1955.
Mr. Mayes was dismissed from the Army with a dishonorable discharge. The punishment was disproportionately harsh and one in which race may have played a part, his supporters said.
He moved to Brooklyn, where he started over with a career in social work and therapy, a leader in the borough’s poorest communities. But as he grew old and his body weakened, he looked back at his service and sought to have his discharge upgraded to an honorable status.
His condition worsened in September and, at last, the Army granted his appeal. Two months later, Veterans Day found him quiet and still, unable to speak and propped on pillows as the profound significance of the day set in among those who knew him best.
It was as if that were enough.
Shortly before 4 p.m., doctors called his daughter Nathalie Pilgrim and said her father had gone into cardiac arrest. They were unable to revive him.
“He died on Veterans Day,” she said. “That’s too much for me.”
Mr. Mayes was a Southern transplant who arrived in New York City a young and broken man in the late 1950s, harboring a secret about his discharge, and the day that brought it about.
He was 21 and stationed at Fort Bragg, where, on July 30, 1955, he walked into a bar on the base to meet a friend.
Trouble started right away: The bar was reserved for officers, and Mr. Mayes was only a private. He wasn’t there long when a sergeant, who had been celebrating his promotion with friends and cold beers, rose from a table to confront the lower-ranking man.
The two began fighting. Mr. Mayes’s friend and others tried to break them up. Then, a gunshot rang out. A bullet struck the sergeant, James W. Emery, in his leg. Mr. Mayes was holding a pistol. He was swiftly arrested.
He told investigators that he didn’t know whether he had pulled the trigger. But in 1956, he was dismissed from the service with a dishonorable discharge. “I wanted to remain in the Army,” he wrote in an affidavit in 2017, “but I was denied rehabilitation or restoration.”
He made his way to Brooklyn, still carrying the stigma of his discharge. He said he had tried to commit suicide three times. “I struggled with depression, alcohol abuse and the shame of my dishonorable discharge,” he wrote.
He eventually pulled himself up and started over, graduating from Adelphi University and going on to earn a master’s degree.
“I found stability,” he wrote, “and dedicated my life to helping others.”
He became a leader and an advocate in Brooklyn’s poorer neighborhoods, promoting mental health awareness and guiding those seeking help for drug addiction. He urged young men to register to vote and worked to raise awareness of H.I.V. prevention and treatment.
He didn’t speak of his discharge from the Army, not even to his three daughters. His was one of some 260,000 so-called bad paper discharges of Korean War-era service members. They were handed down to black service members in disproportionate numbers, according to later government studies.
Around 2014, with his health beginning to fail him, Mr. Mayes sought to petition the military to reconsider his discharge. The change was more than just words on paper: An upgrade in status would make him eligible to receive benefits available to veterans, including health care and burial in a military cemetery.
“I feel that dedication to making positive changes in my own life empowered me to assist others in creating a successful life,” Mr. Mayes wrote.
He worked with Steve Lessard, a lawyer and president of the New York County Lawyers Association, which takes on discharge upgrade cases free of charge; and Rob Cuthbert, a former coordinator for the Veteran Advocacy Project’s Discharge Upgrade Clinic at the Urban Justice Center.
The request was denied. Mr. Mayes continued to decline. He lost his hearing and, in September, he stopped eating and was admitted to Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn. His team renewed their efforts, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York reached out to the acting secretary of the Army.
The new appeal was a success. Sixty-three years after leaving the Army, Mr. Mayes’s discharge was upgraded from dishonorable to honorable. His daughter shouted the good news into his ear and showed him printed signs explaining what had happened.
“We even played a recording” made by one of his advocates, Ms. Pilgrim said on Tuesday. “He would kind of follow us and look at us.”
He was unable to speak but sometimes squeezed a hand on command, giving others hope that he understood the good news. His daughter likes to believe he knew.
“He worked hard for all these years to prove his case,” she said. “He would have been ecstatic.”
Plans were already underway to grant her father a wish he once feared was forever out of reach, one he pleaded in his own words in 2017:
“To be buried in a national cemetery,” he wrote, “with my comrades-in-arms.”
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