Ethics Quiz: The Dying Veterans Plea [Corrected]

I know my answer to this one right now, but I’m curious about everyone else, and willing to be convinced that I’m a hard-hearted meanie.

Call this one a “Good Disgraced Veteran” story, in the style of the recent spate of human interest tales designed to make us feel sorry that the law has to be enforced when those nice, noble illegal immigrants break it. In this variation, the object of sympathy is Needham Mayes, who was among the first black servicemen to be stationed at Fort Bragg following  the President Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces  seven years earlier. In July 1955, as a 21-year-old private, he walked into a club on the base for non-commissioned officers only.  He was quickly confronted by a sergeant; their altercation became violent, and the sergeant ended up shot and bleeding with his own gun. Mayes was arrested and led away in irons, then court-martialed. He left the Army with a dishonorable discharge.

Now in his eighties and ailing, Mayes wants his dishonorable discharge expunged so he can be buried in a national cemetery. [Notice of Correction: I erroneously wrote “Arlington National Cemetery” in the original version] His argument is that after being kicked out of the Army, he turned his life around and has been an admirable, even exemplary citizen.

In 1978, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Adelphi University, then a master’s degree. He became a social worker and therapist. He worked with organizations that fought drug abuse promoted mental health, and worked to  prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. In 2009, when  Mayes was 75, he joined the NAACP’s Civic Engagement Committee, and began working  with young men in poor, black neighborhoods, visiting homes and jails, and also seeking out anyone who would listen at large community events. All who know him and his work acknowledge that he has changed lives for the better.

“I am a rehabilitated man,” Needham  wrote in 2017, in an appeal to have his dishonorable discharge converted to an honorable one, “and I hope to have the right to be buried in a national cemetery with my comrades-in-arms.” His request was denied. Now his lawyers are again mounting an effort to have his record cleansed, assisted by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Should Mayes’ dishonorable discharge be upgraded?

As I said above, I know my answer: no.

Stipulated: Needham Mayes has been a positive force in his community and a fine citizen; based on what I know, I have no difficulty concluding that he is an ethical, virtuous, admirable human being. Nothing he has done since his military discharge, however, alters in any way his conduct when he was in the military, or renders his court martial and discharge any less valid than they were in 1955.

What the Times, Gillibrand, Mayes’ supporters and Mayes himself are arguing for is akin to the Ted Kennedy fallacy, which goes like this: Yes, horny, drunken Ted may have contributed to the death of a young woman and participated in a cowardly cover-up, but he went on to be a hard-working and respected U.S. Senator, so all of that should be forgiven and forgotten. Wrong. Ethics and personal responsibility don’t work like that, and life shouldn’t.  Past misconduct isn’t erased by present good works. Its significance in assessing the character and personal achievements of an individual are certainly mitigated and even outweighed by what has come after, but the misconduct remains, and so should its just consequences.

The Times story adds irrelevant factors to its sympathy brief. Meyers is black; black soldiers were court martialed more frequently than white soldiers; he’s old and  dying; this is a dying man’s wish; and the man he shot back in 1955 says that he holds “absolutely no animosity toward Mr. Mayes,” and  is pleased to that he spent his life helping others. That’s all nice, but it changes nothing.

This is sentimental static designed to interfere with a clear analysis. Needham Mayes was discharged dishonorably after an incident that would have had the same consequences whether the soldier was black, white, or magenta.

Burial in national military cemeteries  is earned by a soldier’s service in the military, not by subsequent achievements in civilian life. My father (along with my mother) is buried in Arlington  National Cemetery because he served honorably and with distinction during World War II, not because he was wonderful husband and father. I’d love to know what my father would think about Meyers’ case: we once had an argument about whether a convicted murderer who was a decorated veteran should be buried at Arlington. My position was that if a veteran’s military record qualified him to be buried there, nothing he did subsequently short of treason should change that. My dad disagreed, and maybe he would disagree with me here as well.

Tell me what you think.

42 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Dying Veterans Plea [Corrected]

    • Absolutely right. Fighting with a superior, even an NCO will get you a court-martial. Killing one will get you Levenworth at minimum.

      He was an unacceptably bad soldier. He should not receive the benefit of an honorable discharge.

  1. I would agree with you. Unless it could be proven he was framed or dishonorably discharged for the wrong reasons, he forfeited his right to be buried there.

    An interesting test would be to ask people this without mentioning race and see what they say.

  2. Some things cannot be taken back. Some things should not be reversed, for the sake of society and as an example to others: act like this, expect this result.

    Those buried in national cemeteries are there for what they did at one point in time, including acclaimed heros in my own family. How they lived their lives after that fact is irrelevant: they qualified for the honor.

    Say a guy who was angry all his life gets pissed and takes out a machine gun nest, moral luck dictating that none of the dozens of rounds aimed at his charge killed him in the process. He earns a medal. Does the fact that he goes on to abuse his wife and kids, never getting over his anger issues, mean we take the medal away? There are good, bad, and indifferent veterans who all are buried in national cemeteries. They all have a single thing in common: they managed to not screw up so bad as to earn a dishonorable discharge. Race does not matter. Gender does not matter. Politics. Religion. Sexual preference. None matter as to who is honored.

    No, let Mayes’ family scatter his ashes in the air over the cemetery from a helicopter, if that is what he wants.

  3. “Unless it could be proven he was framed or dishonorably discharged for the wrong reasons…”

    I agree but that’s not what they are trying to do.

    An interesting test would be to ask people this without mentioning race and see what they say.

    Race is not a factor in this. His actions lead to his dishonorable discharge and those are the ONLY factors that are taken into account when reviewing the discharge. Guilty as charged, period. The military will deny his request no matter how many times they bring it up.

    • “Even though I believe he should not be allowed, times have changed. I believe someway, somehow he will be allowed.”

      If you honestly believe that then you don’t understand the military and a dishonorable discharge at all; it will never happen.

      • I understand the military very well. Take the time to read the changes being taken within the military concerning burial. I completed one such opinion for the military asking views on enabling family members other than a spouse and non – military to be allowed to be buried in VA cemeteries.
        I am military (23 years). I have buried a husband (military/retired before death) and possibly a son (military) if he does not survive his injuries.

        • “I am military (23 years).”

          I was clearly wrong. I apologize.

          “Take the time to read the changes being taken within the military concerning burial. I completed one such opinion for the military asking views on enabling family members other than a spouse and non – military to be allowed to be buried in VA cemeteries.”

          I understand all that and that there are exceptions to the rules, but with all due respect I think you’re somehow missing the dishonorable part of dishonorable discharge and all that entails. His actions earned him a dishonorable discharge and nothing after that can change his actions, nothing that followed his court martial and his dishonorable discharge is relevant in any way in regards to his actions that caused his court martial. His actions ere a dishonor and thus strips him of the honors associated with military burial. He is asking for a military honor that he is no longer qualified for, period. If he wants to appeal the court martial ruling based on the actual evidence of the incident, that’s fine – that’s not what he’s doing.

          P.S. Thank you for the many years of military service from your family.

  4. I agree with your analysis, Jack, that exemplary civilian life after a dishonorable discharge does not merit expunging the dishonorable discharge. The first principle at stake is that one does not balance out the bad by doing good (especially if the good is unrelated to the bad), because that makes chaos out of any ethical principle. Essentially, if I can do enough good deeds to nullify my bad action, then I have license to do anything bad, as long as I then follow up with the requisite good deeds. Moreover, this fosters an entitlement attitude toward the bad deed. I deserve the fruits of my bad action because I paid for them with good actions. The proper response to misdeeds is to repent of them and resolve not to do them again.

    But even more, it makes no sense to be given an accolade for something one did not achieve. If burial in Arlington Cemetery is to honor good military service, one does not get burial in Arlington for being a fantastic philanthropist, or discovering a cure for cancer, or solving world hunger, even those are all very good things. If getting my Eagle Scout requires a certain amount of badge-earning and service work, I don’t get an Eagle Scout if skip out on all the Scouting requirements but then do great work with children groups later on. And I certainly don’t get a trophy for cycling if I broke the world’s record for a marathon.

    I also don’t get my Tour de France trophy back if, after losing for being found to be a cheater, I then lead an exemplary life from then on. Sometimes a misdeed forever closes a door, and part of owning up to that misdeed is accepting that those doors are indeed forever closed.

  5. While I agree with you in this case, I wonder how this compares with the “Cancellation Culture”? Both were actions taken years ago, by people that are arguably much different today.

    • Oooh, I saw that flawed analogy coming, and I’m ready for it! Note how I wrote this:

      “Ethics and personal responsibility don’t work like that, and life shouldn’t. Past misconduct isn’t erased by present good works. Its significance in assessing the character and personal achievements of an individual are certainly mitigated and even outweighed by what has come after, but the misconduct remains, and so should its just consequences.”

      In cancellation culture, past wrongful acts are held to render subsequent good acts irrelevant, and to cancel them out. Once bad, always bad. That’s unethical and illogical, but so is the reverse argument, being used by Mayes, that subsequent conduct should wash away past misconduct and its consequences. It can’t and doesn’t. Punishment for past conduct should stand, no matter what the individual does later. Conduct as juveniles is a special case, where as a society we hold minors to lesser culpability, but that’s not relevant to Mayes. Nathan Leopold, who killed a young boy for the thrill of it, later was released and became a charity worker and philanthropist. But he still was a murderer, and he should have had to live with the consequences of that for the rest of his life.

  6. I think the ethics here hinge on what started the fight. The NCO asked him to leave and he threw punches, sure DH away. The NCO asked him to leave and then said some racist or denigrating shit to him, well goddamn in my book (and I’d argue the book of any reasonable and ethical individual), cleared hot. Military justice is something of an oxymoron (you need look no further than the recent seal trials) and I don’t trust a DH to actually mean that a guy did some bad shit – it often means he did perfectly normal harmless shit and/or got on the bad side of someone in a higher rank (I’ve got some real horror stories).

    Assuming the ethics of how the fight started favor the guy who got a DH my position is this: if the guy has a combat deployment, get rid of the DH and let him into the cemetery. If not, then sorry bud, I just dont think you rate a DH override and a plot.

    • Yeah, the start of the fight got my attention too. If he was refused service and expelled, leading to the fight and an unjust discharge. However, sixty years is far too long for an undo. There would not be enough living witnesses to redo the case fairly. His exemplary life since then hints that this occasion was just a brief aberration. Getting in a fight like that was not a simple brawl among young men adjusting to regular social interactions. I prefer mercy, but using a gun in a fistfight is not honorable.

      But Arlington is supposed to be for those who performed their military duty for the best level. Many honorable soldiers were not buried there, and many, many warriors never qualify. It is an elite honor that the good Senator wants to override like voting for some referendum. Honors are earned not voted, this isn’t Dancing with the Stars.

      I think he and his supporters want a place of high honors, regardless of military service. I don’t see a problem with that, but it would have to be open to service across political affiliations and the fads of politics. I don’t see that happening in the current climate. Crowdsource a really nice mausoleum in another cemetery for his service, I won’t argue against that, many stellar people were never in the military and they are still remembered. Arlington is special for service in the military, and his service came after.

  7. I think this is a pretty easy one, but a few questions.

    Not just any veteran gets into Arlington, right? My understanding that you have to qualify to be buried there and an honorable discharge is only the beginning. Even if this guy was reversed, that would not guarantee him a spot.

    Secondly, he WAS in the wrong, right? He was not supposed to be in that club and, when confronted, assaulted an officer (even if he was defending himself, he would still be wrong. This is not a case of unjust treatment of him. If it were, I could see reversing the dishonorable discharge.

    But, that still would not get him into Arlington, right?


    • That’s right, because they changed the rules when Arlington started getting crowded. Once, any soldier was eligible. I wondered about that too. Maybe everyone is being nice to Mayes and not telling him the fact that he has no chance of getting buries there no matter what.

    • Assaulting an officer in self defense isn’t wrong or illegal (self defense is specifically authorized). It’s just that 100% of the time it’s his word against yours and the UCMJ assigns credibility based pretty much solely on rank. I.e. as someone of superior rank in a closed room with no witnesses you could beat the shit out of whoever you wanted and get away with it nearly every time so long as you didn’t make a habit out of it. I had this PFC who was caught wearing boots on a medical scale that explicitly said “Do not wear boots on this scale” not for any technical reasons it was just a pain in the ass to clean if it got dirty. The Cpl who caught him ordered me and the other guy out of the room and roughed him up a bit. No one witnessed it so it was his word against that PFC and in the UCMJ that’s all that matters. This wasn’t in the 80s or anything this was like 2011. It’s not common but it really does happen.

      • But a situation where the enlisted man is clearly in a locale where he is not permitted to be makes that argument hard to apply here. Sgt says “Get out!’ or even “Get out, [expletive]”, and the only response has to be “Bye!” Anything that escalates from there is likely to be held against the grunt, and correctly so. That a sergeant ended up shot is poison frosting on the cake.

      • “Assaulting an officer in self defense isn’t wrong or illegal (self defense is specifically authorized)”

        But it’s not self-defense if the individual is fighting back AGAINST a lawful order followed by lawful force to remove the individual from a place he was not allowed.

        • If it went down like that sure but a) we dont know that from the article and b) Sergeants don’t normally have lawful force to remove anyone from from base common areas – only the duty personal and MPs.

          • Unless there is ample evidence that indicates the NCO who was shot initiated any violence and that there was clear evidence that the authorities who concluded this as a dishonorable discharge miscarried justice, then this seems rather cut and dry.

  8. Not in this case. He went somewhere he shouldn’t have (not that big of a deal, punishable at best by a fine or lousy duty for a while) and got violent with a superior (a VERY big deal, maybe even an act of mutiny). He’s lucky he didn’t spent a few years in Fort Leavenworth. If he’d been targeted by a racist superior and then discharged on a trumped-up charge, that might be different. but that’s not the case here. Sorry, Mr. Mayes, you blew it.

  9. No.

    The American military SHOULD overturn dishonorable discharges IF:

    1) it can be proven an individual was wrongfully discharged dishonorably.


    2) the cultural climate under which the individual was dishonorably discharged is determined to not reflect our values today. And yes, that does sound like judging people of the past according to modern standards, but I think there’s a distinction here because it’s angled not at condemning people of the past but of exonerating them. Hypothetical example: let’s pretend a black man or a white man was dishonorably discharged for breaking a miscegenation law… it would make perfect sense to have that discharge changed.

    BUT, in this man’s current situation, it’s just as wrong now to shoot someone as it was when he did it.

  10. My rather limited understanding is that a Dishonorable Discharge is the virtual equivalent of a felony conviction. If he truly reformed, he may be worthy of a presidential pardon (if applicable to a discharge).

    However, just like a felon cannot appeal to a court and say, “But I’ve been really good!” to get his conviction overturned (except where the law allows), a serviceman should not get his discharge overturned based on facts and subsequent behavior not relevant to the underlying discharge.

    The pardon power is designed for cases where the justice system cannot adequately address such a situation. It is a discretionary power that sidesteps the system that allows total reform to be rewarded.

    Petitioning the president, rather than the court martial and/or DOD, would seem to be the appropriate venue for redress here.

  11. First, having (finally) read the article, it does not mention Arlington. Apparently, he just wants to be buried in a national cemetery. Having said that, his Sgt. Buddy had no business inviting him to the N.C.O. club. When Sgt. Emery confronted him and told him to leave, Jack is quite correct…the correct response is “Bye”. It does not matter AT ALL what Sgt. Emery said or how he said it. The simple fact is that this guy was a Private Soldier and did not have N.C.O. privileges. That an argument and fight ensued is on him and the dishonorable discharge is and was warranted.

    As to his burial in a national cemetery, along with others who have earned that right; he went to 8 weeks of basic, then 8 more weeks of probably Infantry A.I.T., then went to jump school. I have no idea how long jump school is, never having had any interest in jumping out of a perfectly flyable airplane, but his rank, Private, indicates he was probably in for less than a year. What makes him, or his family, believe that this gives him the right to a final resting place in the same cemetery as both myself and my wife, both of whom served to the end of our enlistments? Without, I might add, any Courts General and both of us having earned Good Conduct Medals?

  12. Mayes should have executed an immediate about face and walked out the door as soon as he was confronted about being in the NCO club where he didn’t belong. Choices have consequences and when not following the rules and direct orders from a superior those consequences can be severe. Mayes chose not to follow rules, Mayes chose to disobey direct orders, Mayes chose to fight a superior, everything Mayes did was wrong, Mayes earned every bit of his dishonorable discharge.

    An aside…

    “the sergeant ended up shot and bleeding with his own gun”.

    Maybe things were vastly different at Ft. Bragg in 1955, but at all six of the Army posts was at in the 1990’s, including Ft. Bragg, no one carried sidearms around the base except for MP’s. I know that things changed over those 35+ years especially with long gun access but why would a Sargent be carrying a loaded sidearm into a bar?

  13. My position was that if a veteran’s military record qualified him to be buried there, nothing he did subsequently short of treason should change that. My dad disagreed, and maybe he would disagree with me here as well.

    This is similar to a hypothetical ethics situation I have considered.
    A servicemen is killed in combat. Multiple witness accounts all but absolutely prove that this serviceman “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”

    Then a DNA test on a rape kit all but prove that the servicemen is guilty of a rape that was unsolved for three years.

    Should the Medal of Honor be awarded?

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