What is the connection between VA disability and discharge characterization? I got out with less than honorable, can I still get VA disability? How can I upgrade my discharge? What benefits am I eligible for with a ______ discharge?
All of these questions have come up in the past. There is a lot of wrong information floating around from “barracks lawyers” who know a little bit and decide they know everything.
However, this is a very important question to have a correct answer to. The answer to this question effects many people. It may even effect their health benefits. Stay with me, because there are several rules pertaining to the VA and characterization of discharge.
The basic principle by which the VA decides eligibility for VA benefits is based on how the VA defines a “veteran” (Stichman 2019). A Veteran’s discharge and the characterization form a part of that definition.
BLUF: The Bottom Line Up Front is that for VA Disability, in general a Veteran is eligible to apply if they were released from service under any condition other than a Dishonorable Discharge.
Military Discharge Characterization
The VA and the Department of Defense classify discharges differently. According to the Department of Defense, there are 6 different classifications of discharge. These are:
- Honorable Discharge
- Discharge under honorable conditions, or general discharge
- Discharge under other than honorable (OTH) conditions, or undesirable discharge
- Bad conduct discharge (can be issued by special court-martial or general court-martial)
- Dishonorable discharge (issued by general court-martial)
- Administrative discharge with no characterization
- Entry Level Separation
- Void Enlistment
- Dropped From Rolls
The VA, on the other hand, will generally consider a person a Veteran if they were released under conditions other than dishonorable. However, there are some conditions that come with that.
Statutory Bars to VA Benefits
There are some reasons for discharge which carry with them a statutory bar to VA benefits, regardless of the characterization. The reasons are as follows:
- Discharge as a conscientious objector
- Discharge by reason of a general court-martial sentence
- Officer who resigns for the good of the service
- Discharge as an alien during times of hostility
- Discharge under OTH conditions as a result of AWOL for at least 180 continuous days*
Note: * There may be an exception if the VA determines that there were compelling reasons for the absence.
If there are no statutory bars to benefits, the VA will determine if there are any regulatory bars to benefits. These bars also fit the discharge under dishonorable conditions as far as the VA is concerned. They include:
- Accepting an undesireable discharge or OTH in order to avoid trial by general court-martial
- Mutiny or spying
- Any offence which involves moral turpitude (generally includes a felony conviction)
- Willful or persistent misconduct
- Homosexual acts which involve aggravating circumstances or affect duty performance
Benefits and Character of Service Determination
One of the other circumstances that cause confusion is that different VA Benefits may require different conditions. If the VA receives an application for a benefit and there is a question of discharge characterization, the VA will conduct a Character of Service Determination. This means that the VA will review the quality of the Veteran’s service and the circumstances surrounding their discharge to determine if there are statutory or regulatory bars to benefits. If there are none, then the VA should find the person to be a Veteran for benefit purposes. However, Character of Service Determinations are some of the more difficult issues that the VA undertakes due to the complexity of most cases so don’t expect these determinations to happen overnight.
General Requirements for Benefits
These are general guidelines. If you or a Veteran you know received less than an Honorable Discharge and are wanting to file for any VA Benefits, contact your local Veteran Service Officer (VSO) for further assistance.
A Veteran is entitled to disability if they were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. In addition, their disease or injury must have occurred or was worsened on active duty. The injury or disease also cannot be a result of willful misconduct or abuse of alcohol or drugs.
VA pension is needs based. That means that the Veterans income (or Survivors in the case of survivor’s pension) must meet certain federal requirements along with certain other requirements. In addition, the Veteran must have had wartime service (at least one day during wartime) with a discharge under other than dishonorable conditions.
VA Health Benefits
In order to be eligible for VA Health Benefits, a Veteran must enroll in the VA Health Care system. The general eligibility requirements to be eligible are:
- A person who served in the active military or qualifying Reserve or Guard members
- Released under conditions other than dishonorable
- Meet a minimum duty requirement
Yes, there is more to enrolling in the VA Health Care system than just those three requirements. Depending upon the Veteran’s specific circumstances they may have an enhanced eligibility. In order to determine your eligibility and in order to enroll, call 877-222-8387.
Burial in a National Cemetery
In general, a Veteran who was discharged under other than dishonorable conditions and completed the required period of service is eligible for burial in a national cemetery. There are others who are eligible. The VA website contains further information on who is eligible.
VA Headstone, Marker, or Medallion
In general, a Veteran who didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge may be eligible for a headstone or marker. As above, there are other requirements which may be reviewed on the VA website.
In general, in order to be eligible for the Montgomery GI Bill or the Post 9/11 GI Bill, a Veteran must have received an honorable discharge. If the Veteran received less than an honorable, they may seek a discharge upgrade in order to qualify for the benefit.
VA Home Loan Guaranty
The Home Loan Guaranty program is one of the best known and most popular of VA benefits for Veterans. The qualifications depend on when a Veteran served and length of service, but as far as characterization of discharge the Veteran must have been released under conditions other than dishonorable.
How to Request a Discharge Upgrade
There are many different reasons why a Service Member would receive other than an honorable discharge. The likelihood of a Veteran receiving an upgrade to their discharge will depend upon their particular situation. However, there are some situations that the military branches view more favorable than others. If your discharge was connected to any of the following, you may have a much stronger case for an upgrade.
- Mental health conditions, including PTSD
- Traumatic brain injury
- Sexual assault or harassment during military service (MST – Military Sexual Trauma)
- Sexual orientation (including under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
Of course, there are no guarantees. However, the above list of conditions have been shown to lead to circumstances which result in other than honorable discharges due to the mental state of the Service Member.
This page will walk a Veteran through the process of applying for a discharge upgrade. Once a Veteran answers some basic questions they will be directed which form to fill out and where to send the form once it is completed. Veterans can also speak to a VSO about a discharge upgrade and receive assistance in collecting the information and evidence they may require to formulate a solid case for an upgrade.
There are other programs the VA administers, but these are the ones most commonly of concern. As I stated before, if you have any questions please get in touch with your local Veteran Service Officer or call the VA directly. I sincerely hope that this explanation benefits some of the Veterans who read it.
As always, if you have any comments or questions feel free to email us.