Orrick Pro Bono Team Secures Discharge Upgrade for Army Veteran in Declining Health


On September 27, an Orrick team helped to secure an Honorable discharge for a Korean War-era veteran who was dishonorably discharged from the Army after a questionable shooting incident in an on-post club. Our client, Needham Mayes, came to Orrick through the New York County Lawyers Association (NYCLA) Veterans Discharge Upgrade Project, a pro bono program Orrick helped NYCLA to establish. Mr. Mayes, who is 85, is nearing the end of his life and sought a discharge upgrade so that he could be buried in a national cemetery with his comrades in arms.

Mr. Mayes enlisted in the Army on July 16, 1953, less than five years after the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces. After basic training, he volunteered for Airborne training was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. On July 30, 1955, Mr. Mayes, then a Private, was invited by Sergeant Henry C. Saunders to go with him into town; however, before he and Sergeant Saunders went to town, they went to the Noncommissioned Officers Club (NCO Club). Within the NCO Club, an incident occurred that led to Mr. Mayes’ court-martial conviction and subsequent dishonorable discharge. 

Although both contemporaneous and current recollections of the incident differ, there are four details that most witnesses, including Mr. Mayes, agree upon: (1) that Mr. Mayes and Sergeant Saunders were in the NCO Club and an altercation between Mr. Mayes and a newly promoted sergeant, Sergeant James Emery, occurred; (2) that Sergeant Saunders brought a personally-owned pistol into the NCO club; (3) that the pistol entered the altercation and was fired; and (4) that Sergeant Emery was shot in the leg and suffered a “small flesh wound.” No witness at Mr. Mayes’ court-martial testified that they ever saw the pistol in the hands of Mr. Mayes until seconds after the shooting. The doubt over who possessed and fired the pistol at the time Sergeant Emery was shot is clearly evident in the transcript of Mr. Mayes’ court-martial. This uncertainty raised sufficient concern for the Presiding Officer to state that “The court suspects that there might be perjury in this case by at least one witness.” Before sentencing, the Law Officer told the voting members of the court that “a case like this is very unusual” and reminded them that they had the right to reconsider their findings before announcing their sentence.

Despite the uncertainty raised by the testimony, Mr. Mayes was found guilty and sentenced to be dishonorably discharged from the service, although he was recommended for a rehabilitation program that would have permitted him to remain in the Army and to become eligible for an Honorable discharge. Prior to the incident that led to his court-martial and discharge, Mr. Mayes’ company commander called the character and efficiency of his more two years of service prior to his court-martial conviction “excellent.” Mr. Mayes was never afforded the opportunity for rehabilitation.

After his discharge, Mr. Mayes soon moved to New York City, where he has lived for more than 60 years.  In the years immediately after his discharge, he struggled with the shame of his dishonorable discharge. Due to his discharge status, Mr. Mayes was stripped of all veterans’ benefits. Despite this, he has dedicated his life to helping others. He overcame a speech impediment and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Social Sciences (becoming the only of his seven siblings to graduate from college). He became a licensed clinical social worker, working at the Association of Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment and Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Mental Health Center, and founding New Concepts Community Support Services, which focused on mental health services, career counseling, recidivism/reentry assistance and HIV/AIDS prevention counseling. In his seventies, Mr. Mayes had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP)-Brooklyn Branch Civic Engagement Committee working to increase participation of African-Americans and others in the democratic process through the elimination of barriers that impede their full civic engagement. He worked with the NAACP until his health declined, causing him to become homebound and to move into a skilled nursing facility. Mr. Mayes’ story was chronicled by the New York Times. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also tweeted his support: “From promoting mental health to encouraging civic engagement, Needham Mayes should be remembered for a life just as honorable as his brave service to our country.”

Due to his declining health, the Orrick team quickly prepared and submitted a brief and application requesting an expedited upgrade of his discharge to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records (ABCMR), a process that typically takes years to come to conclusion. Within a week, the ABCMR rendered a decision adopting the arguments presented in the brief and granting Mr. Mayes a fully Honorable discharge.

Our team was led by Stephen Lessard and included Sandy Ayala.