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    Types of Military Discharge and What they Mean for Veterans

    What is the difference between an administrative and punitive discharge?

    The 8 types of military discharge are divided into 2 distinct categories: administrative and punitive. Punitive discharges are decided by courts martial. Administrative discharges may be voluntary or involuntary, depending on the type and the accused offense.

    What are the types of administrative discharge?

    Honorable Discharge

    Person holding a shield

    The majority of service members exit their service with an honorable discharge. This means they did their assigned job in a diligent and competent manner, followed the rules, and obeyed the law. A letter of reprimand or other minor infraction usually does not prevent the service member from leaving with an honorable discharge.

    Honorable status entitles the veteran to all the benefits available to veterans who have met the other benefit qualifications.

    Benefit examples:

    • Hiring preference for federal jobs,
    • GI Bill for education,
    • Home loan assistance,
    • VA medical benefits, and
    • Retirement pay when they leave the service.

    Veterans with an honorable discharge may reenlist if they want to continue a military career.

    General Discharge

    Passing an envelope

    The full name of this discharge is, “general discharge under honorable conditions”. It usually means there was something that prevented the service member from performing their job adequately or from meeting expected standards of conduct.

    A general discharge still affords the veteran access to most veteran’s programs. In some instances, they may be eligible for VA medical coverage. However, they cannot reenlist and do not have eligibility for the GI Bill.

    How much a general discharge affects the individual’s future may depend on the reason listed on the Form DD-214. When a job applicant claims to be a veteran, the employer can ask to see their DD-214 and see the reasons for the discharge. They still have veteran’s hiring preference for federal jobs

    Other Than Honorable Discharge

    Torn form

    Other than Honorable (also known as Less than Honorable) is the 3rd type of administrative discharge. It is generally used when the service member’s conduct results in punishment for violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Security violations, arrest and conviction by civilian authorities, assault, abuse of authority, and drug violations are all examples of the type of conduct warranting an Other Than Honorable discharge.

    Having an OTH discharge on their DD-214 means the service member will not be entitled to veteran’s benefits and will not be eligible to reenlist. Although an OTH is considered an administrative rather than a punitive discharge, it may have consequences in civilian life.

    What are the types of punitive discharge?

    A court martial trial is required before an enlisted service member can be given a punitive discharge. There are 2 types of punitive discharges that apply to all branches of the armed forces.
    Hand banging a gavel

    Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD)

    A bad conduct discharge (also called a Big Chicken Dinner) is often handed down after a service member is found guilty in a special court martial or a general court martial that requires jail time. The discharge itself will not be completed until the service member completes their incarceration period.

    Some of the offenses that result in a bad conduct discharge could be:

    • Being drunk on duty,
    • Driving under the influence,
    • Committing adultery, or an
    • Arrest for disorderly conduct.

    The following are consequences of receiving a BCD:

    • Forfeit their pay,
    • Lose rank,
    • Loss of military benefits,
    • Not recognized by the federal government as a veteran, and
    • Must be disclosed if asked when applying for a job.
    There is the possibility of receiving some VA medical benefits, but they have to be petitioned for and the matter reviewed by officials at the VA.

    Dishonorable Discharge

    The worst form of discharge a service member can receive is a dishonorable discharge. It is often given along with a stint in military prison.

    The type of offenses warranting a dishonorable discharge include:

    • Murder,
    • Fraud,
    • Desertion,
    • Treason,
    • Espionage, and
    • Sexual assault.

    The consequences from a dishonorable discharge include:

    • Lose VA benefits,
    • Lose civilian rights,
    • Disqualified from federal employment,
    • Barred from owning fire arms (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)), and
    • May not qualify for civilian government benefits (unemployment, federal student loans, etc.).
    There is the possibility of receiving some VA medical benefits, but they have to be petitioned for and the matter reviewed by officials at the VA.

    What are military separations?

    There are situations when a service member may need to be separated from service. These separations are similar to a military discharge and fall into one of the following categories:

    Hand holding a checklist

    Military Separations

    Medical discharges take place when a service member becomes ill or is injured during their military service and are now unable to perform the duties required of a productive member of the military. These separations are based on a medical evaluation. Most people who receive a medical discharge are entitled to VA benefits. If it is a service related injury or medical condition such as traumatic brain injury, combat injury, PTSD, or a chemical exposure, the individual may be eligible for disability benefits.

    Depending on the branch of military service, this form of discharge may be called “Entry-Level Separation” or “Entry-Level Discharge.” Service members who receive this form of discharge were unable to complete basic training, unable to adapt to military life, or unwilling to complete the training. The recipient is a new recruit who has been in the military for less than 180 days and has received written notifications recommending ways they may improve their behavior or performance.

    Such discharges are not considered good or bad. The recruit who receives an ELS is not considered a veteran and is not entitled to any veteran’s benefits. Those that receive an ELS may reenlist.

    This is not a way for a person to get out of their service contract. A commanding officer uses this form of discharge as a way to eliminate those who will not be successful in the military.

    Under Chapter 5, AR 635-200 there are occasions where a service member will be discharged from service under one of the following:

    • Involuntary Separation Due to Parenthood (Ch. 5.8) Couples where both individuals serve are required to create a family care plan. If family responsibilities conflict with fulfilling military duties a soldier may be discharged if a proper plan cannot be established. Those receiving a Chapter 5.8 may be awarded a honorable or general discharge.
    • Personality Disorder (Ch. 5.13) A service member that is significantly impaired by a personality disorder, diagnosed by either a licensed psychologist or physician trained in psychology, may be discharged. The personality disorder has to impair their ability to function in the military environment.
    • Other Designated Physical or Mental Conditions (Ch. 5.17) If a service member has a physical or mental condition that impacts their ability to perform their assigned tasks or could put others at risk. They may be discharged if another reasonable accommodation cannot be made.
      • Examples include sleepwalking, seasickness, claustrophobia, etc. Those receiving a Chapter 5.8 may be awarded a honorable or general discharge.
    Prior to being discharged under Chapter 5, the service member has to receive counseling or given a opportunity at rehabilitation. Those that have served at least 6 years are entitled to a meeting of an Adminstrative Separation Board.

    What happens to officers who do not follow military regulations or commit crimes?

    Officers in the armed services may be imprisoned in military prison for serious crimes. They cannot be reduced in rank by a court-martial, nor can they receive a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge. Instead, following a general court-martial, the officer receives a Dismissal Notice which is the “officer equivalent” of a dishonorable discharge and has a similar impact.
    Handing holding an envelope

    Where can someone find their discharge paperwork?

    If a service member has misplaced their military records, they can request their DD-214, DD-215, Report of Separation, or other release papers from the milConnect portal. If they do not have access to the milConnect portal, the form SF 180 can be filed out and mailed to the appropriate office indicated on the form.

    Can a person contest the type of discharge they received?

    There is a process that allows veterans to appeal their discharge status in the hope of having it upgraded to an honorable discharge. This is through the Discharge Review Board. Every branch of the military has its own Discharge Review Board. The petitioning veteran compiles evidence, document the reasons for why the discharge should be upgraded, and submit an application packet to the review board. Nothing is automatic. In front of the review board the veteran explains why the current discharge is unjust and should be upgraded.

    There are some instances where special consideration is given toward upgrading the discharge. For example, when the veteran can show evidence of PTSD being a factor in the disruptive or criminal behavior that resulted in the unfavorable discharge. 

    Discharges related to sexual orientation are also considered. Since World War II, over 100,000 service members had been discharged for their sexual orientation. When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2011, the Secretary of Defense directed all the Military Discharge Review Boards to consider cases where the discharge was less than honorable because of sexual orientation. Since that time, many LBGT veterans have applied and had their discharges upgraded to honorable. Upgrade packets and instructions are available on -

    Two people shaking hands

    Do veterans have to disclose the type of discharge they received when applying for a job?

    Employers are allowed to ask questions that are relevant to potential work experience or training. Employers may ask about the following:

    • Dates of military service,
    • Rank at time of discharge,
    • What tasks were done during military service,
    • Pay rate during service and at time of discharge, and
    • Types of training received.

    Some employers may run background checks that contain discharge details on the service member’s DD-214. The service member has to consent to the release of their DD-214 at the time of the background check, since they are not public records.

    If the applicant is applying for a job and is claiming their military service under veteran’s preference, they must provide a copy of their DD-214 to the employer. The employer may request either the long or short form DD-214.