CALVERTON, N.Y. – A former Army paratrooper's final request—to be buried with military honors alongside other veterans – was carried out by a New York Army National Guard honor guard on Monday, Dec. 2 at Calverton National Cemetery.
Needham Mayes, the New York City resident who was buried, was one of the first African-American Soldiers to join the 82nd Airborne Division in 1953. But he left the Army with a dishonorable discharge in 1956 after a fight in a Non-Commissioned Officers Club.
In 2016—after a lifetime of accomplishment and community service- he began the process of having that dishonorable discharge changed. His lawyers argued that in a Southern Army post, just a few years after the Army had integrated, black Soldiers were often treated unfairly.
With an assist from New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand, Mayes appeal came through in September 2019. When he died on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2019, he was finally a veteran and eligible to be buried with other Soldiers.
That duty fell to the Long Island team of the New York Military Forces Honor Guard. The Army National Guard Soldiers provide funeral services for around 2,400 New York City and Long Island veterans annually at the Calverton National Cemetery.
Any Soldier who served honorably is entitled to basic military funeral services at their death. Statewide, New York Army National Guard funeral honors teams conduct an average of 9,000 services.
On Dec. 2, the Long Island National Guard Soldiers dispatched 11 members to honor Mayes's last request.
The Honor Guard members treat every military funeral as a significant event, because that service is important to that family, said 1st. Lt. Lasheri Mayes, the Officer in Charge of the New York Military Forces Honor Guard.
But the story of Mr. Mayes "was unique," and because his family had fought hard to get him the honors he deserved that made the ceremony particularly important, Lt. Mayes said.
Mayes's funeral was held as a storm moved into the northeast, and while there was no snow on Long Island, the weather was cold and windy.
The Honor Guard Soldiers conducted a picture-perfect ceremony despite the bad weather, Lt. Mayes said.
Sgt. Richard Blount, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the mission, assembled a great team, she added.
It was "a tremendous honor" for his Soldiers to conduct the mission for the Mayes family, Blount said.
"I was proud to see the team that I put together all join in celebrating his life, and being a member of this memorable event for the family," he said.
According to the New York Times, Mayes Army career went awry in 1955 when he was invited to a meal at the Fort Bragg Non-Commissioned Officers Club.
Pvt. 1st Class Mayes got in a scuffle at the Non-Commissioned Officers Club at Fort Bragg. At some point, a gun—carried by another Soldier according to a story in the New York Times—fell on the floor, went off, and a man was shot.
Mayes reportedly confessed to grabbing for the gun. He was sentenced to a year at hard labor and received a dishonorable discharge.
After leaving the Army, Mayes moved to New York City and became an exemplary citizen.
He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree and became a social worker and a therapist. He raised three daughters and worked for groups fighting drug abuse and promoting mental health awareness and advocated for young black men.
But for Mayes, his dishonorable discharge always bothered him; his family members told the New York Times.
In 2016, as his health started to decline, according to the New York Times, he hired a lawyer to get his discharge upgraded so he could be buried as a veteran.
Initially, the request was denied, but this year New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand began advocating for Mayes.
Also, another former Soldier who was involved in the fight for so many years urged that Mayes's dishonorable discharge be changed.
"Being a person of color, I could never imagine what my predecessors went through, "Blount said. "What happened to Mr. Mayes was not right."
"But it made me that much more proud of the accomplishments and the goals the military has made to move more in a positive direction—a place where we can be unified on all fronts," Blount added.
"I am thankful every day for those that paved the way for myself and others to be the best Soldiers and leaders that we can be," he said.