Law Student Assists Veteran in Getting Purple Heart

Law Student Assists Veteran in Getting Purple Heart

At the age of 21, Army veteran John Spencer Jr. was stripped of his dog tags, uniform and dignity. Spencer compared it to being a criminal.

He received a less-than-honorable discharge rather than being honored as a war hero. Veteran status, military honors, education, a job and health benefits were denied to him for more than 50 years.

Spencer, 73, finally received the awards due to him thanks to the help of the University of North Carolina’s School of Law's Military and Veterans Law Clinic. Spencer was awarded the Purple Heart, a combat infantry badge, and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross on Nov. 4.

The school is known for assisting low-income veterans who seek to upgrade or correct their military discharge status on a pro bono basis.

More than 100 people attended Spencer's long-awaited honors, including law students, ROTC cadets, university trustees and state political leaders. As Spencer's awards were pinned to his chest, his brother and daughter were also present. 

“All I really wanted was when they laid me to rest they just drape that flag across my coffin,” Spencer said.

Spencer would not have been able to receive his Purple Heart without the North Carolina law students who worked with him for three years to restore his federal veteran status.

The clinic has been instrumental in helping several veterans with less-than-honorable discharges get access to benefits and health care they deserved but never received. 

In his remarks at the ceremony, Law School Dean Martin Brinkley said that about 10% of North Carolinians are veterans or active-duty military service members. 

Carolina law students used Spencer's military and health records to appeal his discharge based on discrimination and protocol violations. Spencer was also wounded in the war, earning him the Purple Heart, the oldest military decoration for U.S. troops that dates to the Revolutionary War.

Thousands of North Carolinians, including Spencer, have been improperly or unfairly expelled from the military. This is due to a misunderstanding of mental health and its impact on behavior, discrimination and changing social norms.