Veterans sometimes come to our office seeking help in upgrading less than fully-honorable discharges. They have often been misinformed and assume upgrades can be obtained easily or automatically after six months, neither of which is true. Some accept a discharge they disagree with simply because they just want to be done with it and get out not understanding future ramifications of their decision, such as eligibility for VA benefits.
Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits are the only benefit requiring a fully-honorable discharge, or, a fully-honorable period of service. For example, if a veteran had two enlistments, the first enlistment period is honorable for VA purposes, even though the DD-214 shows a General Under Honorable Conditions discharge, based on the reason the military member was separated during his second enlistment. However, if a veteran had only one period of service and it was not fully honorable, such as a General Under Honorable, the veteran is not eligible for VA education benefits, but is eligible for all other VA benefits such as disability compensation and health care, among others. But, if the discharge was Other Than Honorable, Bad Conduct or Dishonorable, it is generally a bar to all benefits. Other veterans want an upgrade to fully honorable for purposes other than VA benefit entitlement, such as for employment.
Anyone can apply to their branch of service Discharge Review Board or Board for Correction of Military Record for a discharge change or upgrade. Which board one applies to depends upon the specific issue and how long it has been since the member separated from service, but generally the DRB is the starting point if characterization of discharge is the disagreement, unless the veteran has been separated for more than 15 years. If that is the case, the veteran must apply to the BCMR.
To be successful, an applicant must prove one of two things: that their discharge characterization was either improper or inequitable.
Improper means that the discharge was an error, such as the branch of service violated military law or regulation or there were factual errors used in coming to the determination. This is rarely the case.
Inequitable means the characterization was not consistent with established practices of the service and was fundamentally unfair, such as a military member with an excellent record who made one isolated mistake for which others in similar circumstances were historically not punished as severely.
DRBs can upgrade discharges except those awarded by courts martial and can change the reason for discharge to or from anything except medical disability. They also cannot change reenlistment codes. In addition to undesirable discharge characterizations, some people are separated soon after entering service and receive an uncharacterized discharge. These cannot be upgraded because there is nothing to upgrade.
In applying to the DRB, a veteran must complete DD Form 293 or DD Form 149 for the BCMR. Those applying to the DRB have a choice of submitting only the application and documents in support of their request, going to Washington for a personal hearing or electing a traveling board hearing. Simply filling out the form and submitting it is generally not the best choice.
The process for seeking a discharge upgrade is not easy and there are many things to learn about what types of evidence to submit, so it is important veterans do their homework. In complex cases or those involving the law, it may be best to seek legal help.