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How Discharge Characterizations Affect Veterans Benefits

In order to apply for your veterans benefits, you must be able to prove your service eligibility and the nature of your discharge. The type of discharge you received when you left service may affect your eligibility for a particular veterans benefit, so it's important to understand the different types of discharges.

Administrative discharges and your veterans benefits

Most people who serve in the military receive an administrative discharge, of which there are four types:

  • Honorable discharge: Most people receive an honorable discharge (HD) following their service in the military. An HD means your command felt that you generally met the standards of conduct and performance of duty during your time in the military.

    It’s also granted if your service was otherwise so meritorious that any other characterization would be clearly inappropriate. For example, if you received a military medal for valor or bravery on the battlefield, you would usually be given an HD, even if you were a bit of a troublemaker otherwise.

  • General (under honorable conditions) discharge: Usually simply referred to as a “general discharge,” or GD, this type of discharge is granted if your commander determines that your service has been honest and faithful, even if you got into a bit of trouble here and there.

    If you were discharged for reasons such as failure to progress in training; failure to maintain military standards, such as dress, appearance, weight, or fitness; or minor disciplinary infractions, you may have received this discharge characterization.

  • Other than honorable discharge: This is the worst type of administrative discharge you can receive. Other than honorable (OTH) discharges are warranted when the reason for discharge is based upon a pattern of behavior that constitutes a significant departure from the conduct expected of members of the military services.

    Examples of factors that may be considered include an act of serious misconduct, abuse of authority, fraternization, or a pattern of continued misconduct. Individuals who receive court-martial convictions that don’t include punitive discharges are often given this discharge characterization.

  • Entry-level separation: This type of discharge isn’t actually a characterization. In fact, an entry-level separation (ELS) has no characterization at all. It’s not honorable, it’s not general, and it’s not other than honorable.

    Commanders may grant an ELS only for members who have been in the military for less than 180 days. It’s the commander’s way of saying, “Look, we tried you out, and you didn’t make it. However, I don’t know you well enough to fairly judge you.”

If you were discharged with less than 180 days of service, don’t assume you received an ELS. Commanders may elect this option only if they feel it’s the most appropriate. If you punched out your drill instructor after only five days in basic training, it’s doubtful you received an ELS.

Punitive discharges and your veterans benefits

Only special and general courts-martial have the authority to impose a punitive discharge. Summary courts can’t impose discharges. However, if you’re convicted of an offense by any court-martial, and the court doesn’t (or can’t) impose a punitive discharge, your commanding officer can elect to initiate administrative discharge proceedings as a separate matter.

There are three kinds of punitive discharges:

  • Bad conduct discharge: A bad conduct discharge, or BCD, can be imposed by both special and general courts. However, it can only be given, as part of the court punishment, to enlisted members. Officers can’t receive a BCD. This discharge is usually given for convictions of such crimes as absent without leave, drunk on duty, driving while under the influence, adultery, bad checks, disorderly conduct, and so on.

  • Dismissal: Dismissal from military service can only be imposed on officers. Special and general courts may impose this on officers when the maximum punishment listed in the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM) includes a BCD (bad conduct discharge). Dismissal is the officer version of a BCD.

  • Dishonorable discharge: A dishonorable discharge (DD) is the worst type of military discharge you can receive. It can be imposed only by a general courts-martial, and then only if the MCM (Manual for Courts-Martial) authorizes a DD for the offense you’ve been convicted of. In most cases, a DD is accompanied by a very long vacation in a military prison.

How discharges affect eligibility for veterans benefits

If you received an honorable or general discharge, you’re eligible for most veterans benefits, assuming you meet the other qualifying factors for that benefit. A few benefits, such as GI Bill education benefits, require an honorable discharge.

If you received a dishonorable discharge, a bad conduct discharge, or a dismissal from a general court-martial, you’re not entitled to veterans benefits.

If you received an OTH administrative discharge, or a BCD or dismissal imposed by a special court-martial, you may or may not be eligible for veterans benefits.

In these cases, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) makes a determination as to whether your service was “other than honorable.” In making this determination, the VA is required by law to apply the standards set forth by Congress in Title 38, Section 3.12, of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

You can view the CFR online through the Federal Digital System.

Generally, the VA evaluates your military service as “other than honorable” if

  • You were discharged as a conscientious objector who refused to perform military duty, wear the uniform, or comply with lawful order of competent military authorities.

  • You resigned as an officer for the “good of the service.”

  • You accepted an OTH discharge rather than face a trial by general court-martial.

  • You were discharged for desertion. The crime of desertion is defined as absent without leave (AWOL) with the intent to remain away permanently.

  • You were discharged for AWOL in excess of 180 continuous days.

  • You were discharged for the offense of mutiny or spying.

  • You were discharged for an offense involving moral turpitude (or depravity). This includes, generally, conviction of a felony.

  • You were discharged for willful and persistent misconduct.

  • You were discharged for homosexual acts involving aggravating circumstances or other factors affecting the performance of duty. Examples include child molestation, homosexual prostitution, homosexual acts or conduct accompanied by assault or coercion, and homosexual acts or conduct taking place between service members of different ranks, or when a service member has taken advantage of his or her superior rank.

You can have your military discharge characterization upgraded, or even have your reason for discharge changed.

You may be eligible for VA medical care even if the VA determines that your discharge doesn’t qualify for benefits. To qualify, the VA must find that you have a medical condition that was caused or aggravated by your military service.

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