“Bad paper” – or less-than-honorable discharge status from the military – can cause veterans shame, stigma, and loss of VA benefits. Many veterans, and some VA medical center clerks as well, assume that a less-than-honorable discharge status on a veteran’s discharge documents automatically disqualifies him/her from VA healthcare, disability compensation, educational assistance, and other VA benefits.
Though entitlement to benefits is unlikely if you received a less-than-honorable discharge status, there are some exceptions made by VA. There are a variety of types of less-than-honorable discharge that carry different consequences in post-military life. Additionally, VA can make a case-by-case determination of “character-of-discharge” that could potentially allow you to access healthcare and other benefits, if (and only if) you request medical treatment or submit a disability compensation claim.
Types of Discharge Status
A military discharge is simply defined as a service member’s release from their obligation to continue service in the armed forces. When discharged, a service member also receives a “characterization of service” which appears on their DD-214 and usually falls into one of five categories: honorable, general under honorable conditions, other than honorable, bad-conduct, or dishonorable.
By far the most common characterization of service is honorable, with over 85 percent of veterans receiving an honorable discharge. An honorable discharge makes a veteran eligible for all veterans’ benefits.
General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions
General discharge means your military performance was considered satisfactory. Veterans who receive general discharges under honorable conditions are entitled to all VA benefits, but are ineligible for GI Bill education benefits.
Other Than Honorable (OTH) Discharge
An OTH discharge means you had some serious departures from the conduct and performance expected of a service member. Examples of situations that might result in an OTH discharge include security violations, serious misconduct that endangers other members of the military, or use of deliberate force to seriously hurt another person.
OTH discharge characterizations are made administratively rather than through court-martial proceedings. In part because of the absence of a trial, veterans have long reported misuse of OTH characterizations in cases where the soldier’s misconduct was related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), military sexual trauma (MST) or, before 2011, sexual orientation.
Though eligibility for VA benefits is less likely in cases of OTH discharge, VA will make its own determination of eligibility after reviewing the incidents that led to the discharge. This process is discussed further in the section below titled “Other Than Dishonorable: VA Determinations of Eligibility.”
Bad Conduct Discharge
A bad conduct discharge is a punitive, or disciplinary, discharge that’s imposed by a court-martial. A court-martial is a criminal trial conducted by the military when there is a violation. If you receive a bad conduct discharge by a special court-martial, rather than a general court-martial which is for more serious charges akin to civilian felonies, VA may still make a case-by-case determination of whether you are eligible for benefits.
The worst discharge you can receive is dishonorable discharge. This type of discharge status is usually reserved for veterans who have committed a very serious offense such as desertion, rape, or murder. Dishonorable discharges are only issued if you are convicted at a general court-martial that calls for dishonorable discharge as part of the sentence. Thus, if you receive a dishonorable discharge, you are immediately ineligible for all VA benefits.
Other Than Dishonorable Conditions: VA Determinations of Eligibility
Many veterans assume that when they get a less-than-honorable discharge, they are ineligible for benefits. Similarly, veterans are sometimes told by clerks at VA medical centers that they are ineligible simply based on their DD-214, which states their discharge status. These assumptions frequently deter veterans with less than honorable discharges from even applying for VA benefits.
But in fact, veterans with an OTH Discharge or, more rarely, a Bad Conduct Discharge can be deemed eligible for some VA benefits. On a case-by-case basis, VA determines whether the incidents that led to the discharge may be found to have been “under conditions other than dishonorable,” and thus whether basic eligibility for VA benefits can be established. This determination of “character of discharge” is performed by your local VA regional office.
VA does not consider character of discharge until it receives a claim for benefits. This means the onus, or responsibility, is on the veteran to initiate the case-by-case investigation. You can initiate the process via a request for medical treatment at your VA Medical Center (usually VA Form 10-10EZ) or an application for compensation or pension at your VA Regional Office (usually VA Form 21-526). Note, however, that your medical center may defer treatment until the local VA regional office makes a decision about your character of discharge.
To determine whether the events that led to discharge were “under conditions other than dishonorable,” VA reviews the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident(s) that led to discharge, as report by the military. You can also submit your own supporting evidence or evidence obtained from third parties.
VA is more likely to decide your case favorably if your offense was less serious or if there were mitigating circumstances, meaning there were circumstances (for example, mental illness) that at least partially explain why you engaged in misconduct. It may also help your case if the medical treatment you seek is for a condition incurred in or caused by your service.
Statutory Bars to Benefits
By law, VA is prevented from granting entitlement to benefits if the reason for the veteran’s discharge constitutes a “statutory bar to benefits.” That is, if the incident(s) that led to separation or discharge are any of the following:
- sentence of a general court-martial
- being a conscientious objector who refused to perform military duty, wear the uniform, or otherwise comply with lawful orders of competent military authority
- resignation by an officer for the good of the service
- absence without official leave (AWOL) for a continuous period of 180 days or more, without compelling circumstances to warrant such prolonged unauthorized absence (as determined by VA).
- requesting release from service as an alien during a period of hostilities
Other Conditions Considered Dishonorable
In addition to the statutory bars, there are other situations deemed “dishonorable” by VA regulation. Individual’s character of discharge is considered to have been issued “under dishonorable conditions” if he/she was released under any of the following circumstances:
- acceptance of an undesirable discharge to escape trial by general court-martial
- mutiny or spying
- an offense involving moral turpitude (generally including conviction of a felony)
- willful and persistent misconduct, or
- homosexual acts involving aggravating circumstances or factors affecting the performance of duty, e.g. child molestation, homosexual prostitution, homosexual acts or conduct accompanied by coercion or assault, and homosexual acts or conduct when a service member has taken advantage of his or her superior rank, grade, or status.