Dishonorable Discharge: Everything You Need to Know

Dishonorable Discharge: Everything You Need to Know
2016 Manual for Courts-Martial. (U.S. Air Force/SrA Van Syoc)

A "dishonorable discharge" is a type of military separation given as a punishment for a serious offense during military service. The opposition of "honorable discharge," it's far from the only type of less-than-ideal military discharge a service member can receive.

When someone gets out of the military, they receive a separation document that certifies their military service and also indicates whether their service to the nation was completed satisfactorily. This document, the DD-214, usually lists the dates of service, any commendations or medals received, the reason for separation and the military's characterization of their service.

This characterization of one's military service is also known as the type of military discharge. It can be very important later in life to anyone wishing to receive federal or state veterans benefits or special considerations because of their military service. Most medical or disability discharges are characterized as honorable.

For most people, anything other than an honorable or general discharge is considered a "bad paper discharge," because that one piece of paper (the DD-214) can spell bad news for their future.

Types of Military Discharges

There are five main types of military discharges or separation characterizations:

  1. Honorable -- This is the type of discharge a person receives if they complete their contracted obligation with proper military behavior and proficient performance of duty. This includes not running afoul of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
  2. General -- Issued when a person shows a pattern of minor misconduct or fails to complete the original service contract. Oftentimes the misconduct isn't serious enough to be a criminal offense in the civilian world, but it disrupts military discipline and order. This may also be given if the service member leaves the military early for things like physical readiness failure or parenthood.
  3. Other Than Honorable -- Given when there is misconduct that could be considered a misdemeanor in the civilian world. Incidents such as drug use, fighting, abuse of position, disobeying an order, etc.
  4. Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD) -- Given as a punishment for bad conduct rather than a punishment for serious offenses. It may also be given if someone exhibits a pattern of convictions for misconduct that indicates they are unfit to serve in the military.
  5. Dishonorable Discharge -- Given as a punishment for a serious offense. Usually when someone commits a felony-level offense, either in the military or civilian jurisdiction.

You may notice that the bad conduct discharge (BCD) and dishonorable discharges are given as punishment. They are considered punitive discharges, which means they are a legal punishment. As such, they may only be handed down by a court-martial.

An uncharacterized discharge is given to individuals who are discharged before they serve 180 days of military service, this type of discharge is neither honorable or dishonorable. Normally, those who are separated within the first 180 days of service are not eligible for any veterans benefits unless they are injured as a result of their service.

Related: What is a Military Court Martial?

Technically, officers cannot receive a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge. If an officer is convicted in a court-martial, they may be dismissed from the service, or resign for the good of the military, which is effectively the same as receiving a dishonorable discharge.

An Other-Than-Honorable Discharge Can Leave You Stranded

Typically, when they leave service, military members are authorized a final move at government expense. That includes shipment of their household goods, meals and lodging necessary to complete the travel, plus the cost of travel for them and any dependents.

But someone receiving an other-than-honorable discharge will receive a one-way ticket home on the cheapest form of transportation available. They are usually escorted to the main gate of the military installation, relieved of their ID card and given a ticket home with just the clothes on their back and what they can carry. Any personal belongings must either be shipped at their own expense, given away or trashed.

Their dependents, however, may receive the normal travel benefit with the service's approval.

Effects of a Military Discharge on Civilian Life

For most people, their type of military discharge has very little effect on their later life. There are exceptions, of course.

Some employers, usually law enforcement-, government- or defense-related jobs, pay close attention to your type of discharge; most others don't. However, someone who has a security clearance and receives a less-than-honorable discharge may lose that clearance, severely limiting their future employment opportunities.

Some states have laws that prevent employers from asking about the type of military discharge an applicant received.

A person who receives an other-than-honorable discharge also loses the right to wear their military uniform in a parade or ceremony; they are not legally a veteran.

Military Discharge and Veterans Benefits

The most resonating consequence of a military discharge is its effect on veterans benefits. Basically, anything other than an honorable or general discharge puts Department of Veterans Affairs benefits at risk. The VA says that most veterans with discharges that are not "honorable" are usually not eligible for some, if not all veterans benefits.

Eligibility to VA benefits based on type of discharge:

  • Medical Benefits -- Only veterans with anything other than a dishonorable discharge are eligible for VA health care.
  • Disability Compensation -- Only veterans with anything other than a dishonorable discharge are eligible..
  • GI Bill -- The Post-9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill require an honorable or general discharge; all other education benefits (Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance, or DEA, and Veteran Readiness and Employment, or VR&E) require an "other than dishonorable" discharge.
  • Home Loan -- Only those with anything other than a dishonorable discharge are eligible.

What Is an "Other-Than-Dishonorable" Discharge?

The VA uses the term "other than dishonorable" in determining eligibility to benefits; however, that is not a type of discharge that is issued by the Defense Department. Specifically, the BCD and dishonorable discharges are the only types that can be considered dishonorable..

The law that governs veterans benefits specifically says anyone with an other-than-honorable discharge or worse is not legally considered a veteran by the federal government. Since they aren't considered veterans, they aren't eligible for any veterans benefits. This applies to all federal and many state benefits.

Related: State Veterans Benefits

Service members being separated with an "other than honorable" discharge must be informed in writing that they may ask the VA to review their service record to determine eligibility for veteran's benefits.

The VA will review the member's service record to determine the specific cause for the discharge. There are some crimes, like desertion or spying that are permanent bars to benefits,

When a veteran with a less-than-honorable discharge applies for benefits or requests a review, the VA will examine the service information and make a character of discharge determination. If the VA makes a positive determination, the veteran becomes eligible for benefits. If there is a negative determination, the veteran may request to have their discharge changed by the military.

Getting a Dishonorable Discharge Changed

Each branch has a discharge review board with authority to change, correct or modify discharges. The board has limited authority to address medical discharges or those issued by a general court-martial.

Related: How to Upgrade Your Military Discharge

Other-than-Honorable Discharge After Reenlistment

When the VA determines eligibility for benefits, they look at a veteran's entire military service. If the veteran reenlisted at least one time in their military career, they may be eligible for benefits, no matter what type of discharge they received when they finally left the service.

The VA will review the service record and see whether the veteran ever reenlisted. If so, that means the veteran was honorably discharged from the service in order to reenlist, and they will most likely be eligible for all normal veterans benefits.

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