To be eligible for VA disability benefits, a veteran’s discharge must be under conditions other than dishonorable. This does not mean that an honorable discharge is required for receipt of VA benefits—a general discharge, or a discharge under honorable conditions, is acceptable as well. But what happens if a veteran does not meet this criterion? Is there a way that he or she can still receive benefits? As with many VA questions, the answer is maybe.
One option for a veteran with an other than honorable discharge is to apply for a discharge upgrade through a Discharge Review Board. This is a process outside the VA. If a discharge is upgraded through this process, the VA will consider the upgrade in determining eligibility for benefits, but the discharge upgrade does not automatically remove the bar to VA benefits.
Under the law, benefits are not payable to a conscientious objector who refused to perform military duty, wear the uniform or comply with military authorities. Nor are benefits payable to a veteran who was discharged by general court-martial, who resigned as an officer for the good of the service, or who deserted. Benefits are not payable to a veteran who was absent without official leave (AWOL) for a period of at least 180 days. This bar for an extended period of AWOL may be removed if there is a finding of compelling circumstances which could excuse the absence. In making its determination as to compelling circumstances, the VA is required by law to consider several factors, including the quality and length of the veteran’s service, exclusive of the period of absence; the reasons given by the veteran for going AWOL (taking into consideration the veteran’s age, cultural background, educational level and judgmental maturity as well as hardship or suffering incurred during overseas service or as a result of combat wounds or other service-incurred disability); and whether a valid legal defense exists for the absence which would have precluded a conviction for AWOL, i.e., if the absence would not lead to a conviction of an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Another consideration in determining whether an other than honorable discharge is a bar to benefits if whether the person was insane at the time of committing the offense for which the veteran received the discharge. For purposes of the VA, an insane person is one who, while not mentally defective or constitutionally psychopathic exhibits, due to disease, a more or less prolonged deviation from his normal method of behavior, or who interferes with the peace of society. Insanity would remove the bar to benefits.
One other important point to know with regard to the character of discharge is that VA can grant benefits for an injury or disability which occurred during a period of honorable service even if the veteran later has a period of dishonorable service.