Civilians and even some military personnel often assume that the only types of military discharges are honorable or dishonorable discharge. Although viewing military discharge as honorable or dishonorable makes it easier to understand, the United States military classifies all separation of service events as an administrative or punitive military discharge.
What is an Administrative Discharge?
A commanding officer with high rank or another active duty high ranking member of the United States military has the authority to grant an administrative military discharge. Soldiers retiring from military service will receive one of the following four types of administrative military discharge if they have not previously received a punitive discharge.
Most soldiers who complete the military service they agreed to when enlisting in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, United States Coast Guard, or the National Guard receive an honorable military discharge. Receipt of an honorable military discharge means that you met performance and conduct standards while completing active duty military service.
An honorable military discharge also signifies that you displayed meritorious service that qualifies you for a medal for your bravery and valor. Many service members still receive an honorable military discharge even with disciplinary actions on their military records if they received a medal for the personal conduct while on the battlefield.
General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions
A general discharge applies to service members who faithfully completed active duty even if they have some disciplinary issues listed on their military records. Common reasons to receive a general discharge under honorable conditions include:
- Not maintaining military standards of dress
- Not maintaining military standards of appearance
- Not maintaining military standards for body weight
- Not maintaining military standards for fitness
- One or more minor disciplinary infractions while serving active duty
- Not demonstrating adequate progress in your military training
Other Than Honorable Discharge
Other than honorable discharge means that the military ended your active duty service prematurely due to an act of serious misconduct. Abuse of authority and/or fraternizations also fall under this category. You could receive an other than honorable discharge when you come to the end of your enlisted military service and opt for desertion rather than waiting to receive your formal military discharge from a superior. Any military service member convicted by special court-martial who did not receive a punitive discharge also receives an other than honorable discharge.
The fourth level of administrative military discharge is neither honorable nor general, which means it remains uncharacterized. Military service personnel in a commanding position can relieve service members of duty after 180 days or less if it becomes clear that person does not have the physical stamina required to remain on active duty for the United States military. The service member could also face entry-level separation for mental health issues that affect performance.
Punitive Military Discharges
As an active member of the armed forces, you can only receive a punitive military discharge via special court-martial. A punitive military discharge can fall into one of three categories. You should also note that your commanding officer has the authority to initiate separate administrative discharge proceedings if you receive a conviction via special court-martial.
Bad Conduct Discharge
A general court or special court can institute a bad conduct discharge against enlisted military service members only. These courts have no jurisdiction over bad conduct discharge for higher ranking officers. You could receive this type of punitive discharge for any of the following offenses:
- Absence from the military without receiving a formal leave (desertion)
- Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while serving active duty
- Committing adultery
- Disorderly conduct
- Driving a personal or military vehicle while under the influence
- Writing a bad check
Dismissal is a type of punitive military discharge reserved for officers. A general or special court can dismiss you from military service for numerous types of bad conduct, including those listed above for enlisted military personnel.
A dishonorable discharge is the worst type you can receive from the United States military. A general court martial can demand a dishonorable discharge along with a prison sentence for serious crimes such as sexual assault or treason.
Miscellaneous Types of Military Discharge
Although rarely used, you may find yourself subject to a military discharge for the convenience of the government. The branch of service involved with this type of military discharge determines what constitutes grounds for dismissal and completes the action as discretely as possible.
If you receive a medical discharge, it means that you have an illness or injury significant enough to prevent you from completing your military service. The disabling condition need not be related to military service. Medical discharges from military service are often long and complex. You may or may not have the ability to appeal a medical discharge decision depending on several factors unique to your branch of service.
How Your Military Discharge Status Affects Eligibility for VA Benefits
Most general benefits administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) state that eligibility is open to any military service veteran with a status of anything other than dishonorable discharge. However, certain veterans’ benefits have unique eligibility requirements that you should know before applying for them. Here are the specific military discharge requirements to maintain eligibility for these programs:
- Military Retirement Benefits: You must have a military discharge status of honorable, general, or under honorable conditions to maintain eligibility for retirement pay for military members.
- VA Compensation: To receive compensation for a service-related injury or illness or to participate in any VA services, your military discharge status must be anything other than dishonorable. The military discharge you received cannot be a punitive discharge.
- VA Education Benefits: The Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill both require military personnel to have received an honorable discharge from active duty service. Other educational programs for retired military personnel only require a military discharge status of anything other than under dishonorable conditions.
- VA Home Loan Program: Former service members applying for mortgage financing must have had a military discharge status of general, honorable, or under honorable conditions.
- Veterans’ Insurance Benefits: Life insurance through the United States military is available to all active duty and retired personnel regardless of military discharge status.
What All Military Personnel Should Know About the Discharge Review Board
If you are unsatisfied with your official military discharge status, you can challenge it with the Discharge Review Board (DRB) for your branch of service. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, United States Coast Guard, and Air Force all create unique policies on what a soldier retired from active duty can do to receive a discharge upgrade.
You may need to contact the Board for Correction of Military Records to correct an error or submit evidence demonstrating why the United States military should grant you a discharge upgrade. Each branch of service has its own timeline for when you must challenge your military discharge status and submit the required evidence.
The Discharge Review Board cannot upgrade your military discharge status to make you eligible for the GI Bill or other types of VA payments. Additionally, the Discharge Review Board cannot reverse a previous military discharge decision based on a recent change of character or for compassionate reasons.
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