Types of Military Discharge and What they Mean for Veterans

Not everyone leaves the military with an honorable or a dishonorable discharge. The system is far more complicated than that. There are 5 types of discharge for enlisted personnel. Officers are not discharged from the service; they are relieved from active duty. In addition, there are several categories of “separation from service” that are somewhat different than being discharged. This article will explore the various ways people leave military service and the impact of each on jobs and eligibility for veteran’s benefits.

The five types of military discharge are divided into two 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.

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.

What are the three types of administrative discharge?

Honorable Discharge 

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. That includes the GI bill for education, home loan assistance, VA medical benefits, and, for those who were career military, retirement pay when they leave the service. Veterans with an honorable discharge can reenlist if they want to continue a military career, and they have hiring preference for federal jobs.

General Discharge

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.

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 his DD-214 and see the reasons for the discharge. A general discharge still affords the veteran access to most veteran’s programs. They still have veteran’s hiring preference for federal jobs. In some instances, they may be eligible for VA medical coverage. However, they cannot reenlist and do not have eligibility for the GI Bill.

Other Than Honorable Discharge (OTH)

This is the third type of administrative discharge and the most undesirable. 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 the 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 can have consequences in civilian life.

What are the types of punitive discharges?

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

Bad Conduct Discharge

A military service member will receive a bad conduct discharge after being convicted of an offense in a court-martial and usually after they have served time in jail. Some of the offenses warranting a bad conduct discharge are: being absent without leave, being drunk on duty, driving under the influence, committing adultery, arrest for disorderly conduct and passing bad checks. With this discharge on their DD-214, the veteran will be ineligible for veteran’s benefits and for reenlistment.

Dishonorable Discharge

Only general courts-martial can order a dishonorable discharge, which is the worst type of discharge a service member can receive. 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. In addition to losing VA benefits, those with a dishonorable discharge also lose civilian rights, such as the right to bear arms. This is the military equivalent to having a felony record. They may have difficulty finding work in the civilian sector.

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

Officers in the armed services can 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.

What are other forms of military separations and discharge that cause an inability to serve?

In addition to discharges, the military services also have situations where members “separate” from the service for other reasons. It may be a mental or physical condition that prevents continued service. Here are some examples:

Entry-Level Separation

Depending on the branch of military service, it may be called “Entry-Level Separation” or “Entry-Level Discharge.” The recipient is a new recruit who has probably been in the military for less than 180 days. They are unable to complete basic training, unable to adapt to military life, or unwilling to complete the training. Such discharges are not considered good or bad. The recruit who receives an entry-level discharge or separation is not considered a veteran and is not entitled to any veteran’s benefits.

Separation for the Convenience of the Government

These are rare and take place when it is in the government's best interest to discharge the service member for a mental of physical condition. For example, a Navy enlistee whose training is in shipboard communications suffers from severe and intractable sea sickness. Or a service member has a personality disorder that makes it impossible to work in groups.

Medical Discharge

These are used 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.

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 must compile evidence, document the reasons for upgrading the discharge, and submit an application packet to the review board. Nothing is automatic. The veteran must support their case and explain why the current discharge is unjust.

There are some specific instances where special consideration is warranted toward upgrading the discharge. Perhaps, the veteran can show evidence of PTSD being a  factor in the disruptive or criminal behavior that resulted in the unfavorable discharge. There have been instances where the victim of a sexual assault experienced PTSD that ended in unfavorable discharge. Those cases, too, warrant special consideration.

Discharges related to sexual orientation are also considered. Since World War II, over 100,000 service members have 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 Vets.gov - https://www.va.gov/discharge-upgrade-instructions/.

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

Employers cannot ask an applicant to tell them what type of discharge they received. They may, however, ask whether your discharge was honorable or general. The job applicant can choose whether they want to claim prior military service. If an applicant claims prior military service on the employment application form, the employer may ask for a copy of the DD-214. Many larger employers are aware that when a service member leaves the service, they are given 2 copies of the DD-214, the short version and the long version. It is the long version that contains the details of military training and reasons why a discharge may be less than honorable. The employer may request the long version.


Service member portal - milConnect

Form to request military records - https://www.archives.gov/files/research/order/standard-form-180.pdf

Family member requesting military records

Veteran discharged more than 62 years ago

Veteran discharged less than 62 years ago

This website has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information on this website is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state-to-state or county-to-county, so that some information in this website may not be correct for your situation. Finally, the information contained on this website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information contained in this website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your jurisdiction.

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