SAN DIEGO -- Nearly 70 years after expelling Melvin Dwork for being gay, the Navy is changing his discharge from "undesirable" to "honorable" -- believed to be the first time the Pentagon has taken such a step on behalf of a World War II veteran since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
The Navy notified the 89-year-old former corpsman last month that he will now be eligible for the benefits he had long been denied, including medical care and a military burial.
Dwork spent decades fighting to remove the blot on his record.
"I resented that word 'undesirable,' " said Dwork, who was expelled in 1944, at the height of the war, and is now a successful interior designer in Manhattan. "That word really stuck in my craw. To me it was a terrible insult. It had to be righted.
"It's really worse than 'dishonorable.' I think it was the worst word they could have used."
For Dwork, victory came with a heartbreaking truth: Last year, when the Navy finally released his records, he learned that his name had been given up by his own boyfriend at the time.
The decision to amend his discharge papers was made by the Board for Corrections of Naval Records in Washington.
In its Aug. 17 proceedings, obtained by The Associated Press, the board noted that the Navy has undergone a "radical departure" from the outright ban on gays that was in place in 1944. The board pointed out Dwork's "exemplary period of active duty" and said that changing the terms of his discharge was done "in the interest of justice." Navy officials declined to discuss Dwork's case, citing privacy reasons.
"I think that with the end of 'don't ask, don't tell,' there is a growing realization within the military that not only gays be allowed to serve openly now but this was probably the wrong policy all along," said Aaron Belkin, an expert on gays in the U.S. military at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He added: "This illustrates, at least in the case of one person, that the military is trying to set things right."
About 100,000 troops were discharged between World War II and 1993 for being gay and lost their veterans' benefits as a result, Belkin said.
Under the more relaxed "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which allowed gays to serve as long as they kept their sexual orientation to themselves, about 14,000 troops were forced out, but most were given honorable discharges that allowed them to draw benefits. The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" officially takes effect Tuesday.
Since Congress voted last year to repeal the Clinton-era law, dozens of gay veterans who were given undesirable, dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharges before 1993 have stepped forward, seeking to have the stain removed from their records, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
The SLDN, which provides free legal representation to gays in the military, said Dwork is the first World War II veteran they know of to succeed in getting his records changed.