John Spencer was working the graveyard shift at the Quality Mills textile plant in Mount Airy, North Carolina, when his draft number came up.
After training at Fort Bragg and Fort Knox, the 20-year-old was sent to South Vietnam in 1969, where he served for one year and 16 days as an Army armored reconnaissance specialist in the infantry. During that deployment, he was hit in the neck by shrapnel.
But it wasn’t just the enemy that presented challenges for Spencer abroad. As a Black man in the Army he endured racism and discrimination from a leader who called him lazy, conniving and much worse, he recalled.
The unit would ultimately unilaterally discharge Spencer with an other than honorable discharge — the lowest administrative discharge in the military — for minor infractions. Spencer was told by this unit that the discharge would be upgraded once he was stateside again.
He was sent home to North Carolina, disqualified for veterans benefits. He was eligible for the Purple Heart but never received it. He had earned a coveted combat infantryman badge and a Vietnam War Cross that he was never awarded.
Then, three years ago, Spencer met with Tar Heels from the UNC School of Law’s Military and Veterans Law Clinic and told his story. That group of Carolina Law students at the clinic advocated for Spencer and worked to restore his federal veteran status and much more.
In spring 2022, the clinic team received the good news that Spencer’s discharge had been upgraded and his honors would be restored. After five decades, he was finally granted full federal veteran status with full health care benefits and received his Purple Heart, combat infantryman badge and a Vietnam Gallantry Cross.