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After an honorable discharge at 90, a lesbian veteran hopes to inspire others

Helen James Grace, who was expelled from the military in 1955 due to her sexuality, hopes other veterans will follow in her footsteps and seek vindication.
by John Paul Brammer /

Helen Grace James, now 91, was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1955 due to her sexuality. But after waiting for more than six decades, James finally received her vindication on Jan. 18: The military upgraded her discharge status to "honorable."

"It was both joy and shock," James told NBC News that day.

Prior to the good news, which she had received via a FedEx package to her California home, James had sued the Air Force to upgrade her status. She said she did so for reasons that were more than just symbolic: Without the upgrade, James was denied a number of veteran benefits, including USAA insurance coverage and the right to be buried in a national cemetery.

Now, more than a month after receiving her honorable discharge, James continues to tell her story —from being interrogated by the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations to deciding to fight the government — in the hopes of inspiring other veterans whose sexuality got them kicked out of the military.

"I hope my story will encourage women and men to come forward and take care of themselves," James said Tuesday in an interview on NBC's "Megyn Kelly TODAY." "They have a right."

James was just one victim of what has come to be known as the “Lavender Scare,” a period of time contemporaneous with the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, when suspected communists were purged from the U.S. government.

Anti-gay sentiment commingled with the panic. During the fever pitch of McCarthyism, homosexuality was associated with communism: a scheme to undermine the American family and American values, an immoral act that left who those participated in it susceptible to blackmail.

"It was a stain on my family to be put out of the United States Air Force," James said of her "undesirable" discharge. "I love my country, and I was told I was a security risk to my country."

James is not alone in her struggle. During the so-called Lavender Scare, thousands of gay employees were fired or forced to resign from the federal workforce due to their sexual orientation, according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

While many Americans are still dealing with the same hurdles James faced for decades, James can finally enjoy her vindication.

"Sometimes I feel like I can fly," she told Kelly. "I feel so relieved."

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