Determining whether you qualify for a specific veteran’s benefit can be a frustrating process fraught with complications. In this post, we will break down the three biggest factors which affect your eligibility. They are:
- Length of service
- Location and date of time served
- Discharge characterization
We will also examine how one’s discharge affects their level of access to Veteran’s benefits, and how one may attempt to change their discharge classification.
Length of Service
The majority of benefits require completion of a minimum length of service. For example, to qualify for full Montgomery GI Bill benefits, you would need to serve for a minimum of 36 months.
VA disability compensation or VA medical care is sometimes available for individuals who have served any amount of active duty, including, in some cases, just a single day of service. If the length of service was very short however, then other qualifications may need to be met in order to qualify for full medical and disability compensation benefits.
For those whose active service began after September 7th, 1980, 24 months of continuous service is the baseline for most benefits. Exceptions to this include, but are not limited to:
- Recipients of a Purple Heart
- Former Prisoners of War (POWs)
- Those who were discharged for hardship or a non-preexisting disability
- Those found by the VA to be catastrophically disabled
- Recipients of the Medal of Valor
Regardless, the VA encourages all veterans to apply, even those who are unsure if they have served long enough to qualify, or who may not have other factors qualifying them beyond length of service.
Location and Date of Time Served
The location and time in which you served in the military has an influence on your applicability for certain veteran’s benefits. For example, to be eligible for the VA Home Loan Program, a veteran whose service took place during the Gulf War would need at least 24 months of continuous active-duty to qualify. If their service took place during the Vietnam War, the minimum length of active duty required is 90 days. At least six months of service is required for members of the National Guard or Reserves, unless they qualify due to active-duty status.
There are multiple types-or characterizations-of discharges, based upon the quality of one’s military services. Discharges however, fall under two categories: Administrative and Punitive.
Administrative discharges are granted by the discharge authority of a high-ranking commanding officer, typically for reasons related to command’s satisfaction regarding one’s quality of service, while Punitive discharges can be executed only through a military court-martial for offenses determined to be exceptionally serious.
Military discharges are predominantly administrative in nature, but it is important to understand the differing types of administrative discharges:
- Honorable discharge: The majority of service members will receive an Honorable Discharge (HD) after their service. This represents the individual’s ability to meet the standards required of them, and their adequate performance of duty in the opinion of their commanding officers. If the service of the individual was exceptional, and they were awarded a medal for valor or bravery, an HD would be granted by default.
- General (under honorable conditions) discharge: Service performed in an authentic and faithful manner, even if not completely satisfactory, would result in a general discharge (GD). Minor disciplinary infractions, failure to progress with training, or failure to maintain standards of dress, fitness, or appearance can all result in a GD characterization.
- Other-Than-Honorable discharge: When an individual’s disciplinary issues go beyond minor infractions, an Other-Than-Honorable discharge (OTH) is issued. This is the most negative characterization of an administrative discharge and represents a significant failing on the part of the former service member to live up to the standards expected of those who serve. Factors that may lead to an OTH include abuse of authority, serious misconduct, fraternization, and a pattern of repeat offenses.
- Entry-level separation: Individuals who serve less than 180 days qualify for an entry-level separation (ELS), which is a special case that has no characterization. This may be viewed as a neutral discharge after a preliminary test service. Not every discharge after less than 180 days results in an ESL, each case is judged individually.
For punitive discharges, only special and general courts-martial have authority to enact this characterization upon the individual in question. Summary courts cannot impose discharges. However, the individual’s commanding officer can resolve to begin administrative discharge proceedings as a separate matter if they’re convicted of an offense by any court-martial and the court does not impose a punitive discharge.
The three types of punitive discharges are as follows:
- Bad Conduct Discharge: Otherwise known as BCD’s, Bad Conduct Discharges are appointed by special and general courts, but only to enlisted members as part of the court punishment. Officers cannot receive a BCD. Convictions for crimes include absence without leave (AWOL), intoxication while on duty, driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI/DWI), adultery, issuing bad checks, as well as disorderly conduct can all result in the distribution of a BCD.
- Dismissal: A Dismissal is similar to a Bad Conduct Discharge, but is designated only for officers. Whereas the maximum punishment listed in the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM) includes a BCD, special and general courts have the ability to impose Dismissals on an officer.
- Dishonorable Discharge: Again, the worst option to be imposed, a Dishonorable Discharge (DD) is distributed only by a general court-martial, and only if the MCM authorizes a DD for the offense that the individual was convicted of. Traditionally, a DD is tacked on to an extended time held in a military prison.
How discharges affect eligibility
Veterans are eligible for many benefits after receiving honorable or general discharges, provided they meet additional criteria. However, an Honorable Discharge is a required prerequisite in order to receive GI Bill education benefits.
On the other hand, if an individual received a dishonorable discharge, bad conduct discharge, or a dismissal from a general court-martial, they do not qualify for veteran’s benefits.
If a special court-martial imposes an Other-Than-Honorable administrative discharge, Dismissal, or Bad-Conduct-Discharge, certain veteran’s benefits may not be available. In cases such as these, the Department of Veteran’s affairs (VA) is tasked with determining a service member’s time as “other than honorable,” by applying to standards vested by Congress in Title 38, Section 3.12 in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
The CFR is available for review online at: edocket.access.gpo.gov/cfr_2007/julgtr/pdf/38cfr3.12.pdf.
One’s service is considered “other than honorable” by the VA if:
- An individual conscientiously objects to performing military duty, wearing a uniform, or abiding the lawful order of competent military authorities.
- Resignation occurs for the “good of the service”.
- Rather than face a trial by general court-martial, an individual opts for an OTH.
- A service member is discharged for going absent without leave (AWOL) with no intent of returning—otherwise known as desertion.
- A service member is discharged for AWOL in excess of 180 continuous days.
- A service member is discharged for insubordination or espionage.
- A service member is discharged for moral depravity which generally includes conviction of a felony.
- A service member is discharged for intentional and continued misconduct.
- A service member is discharged for homosexual actions involving provoking situations or other factors affecting the routine of duty including child molestation, homosexual prostitution, homosexual acts or conduct followed by assault or coercion, and homosexual acts or conduct taking place between service member of different ranks, or if a service member has abused his or her superior rank.
The VA, after evaluation, could itself determine that a particular discharge doesn’t qualify for benefits, but VA medical care may still be available in some cases. In order to qualify, the VA must recognize that a veteran developed a medical condition sustained during or aggravated by their time in the military service.
Changing Your Discharge
Veterans are not altogether out of the running for receiving benefits if they were issued a disqualifying discharge characterization. It is possible to apply to the applicable Discharge Review Board (DRB) for a discharge upgrade or to alter the reason for discharge, provided the individual has credible reason to believe their characterization to be unfair. An unfair characterization is generally classified as either inequitable or improper.
- Inequitable means the cause for characterization conflicts with policies of the service.
- Improper means the cause for characterization is incorrect by violating a regulation or law established with policies of the service.
Veterans seeking to upgrade or change the cause of their discharge must apply with DD Form 293, Application for Review of Discharge from the Armed Forces of the United States. This application is also available at a VA regional office or by sending a written request to the Army Review Boards Agency (ARBA), ATTN; Client Information and Quality Assurance, Arlington, VA 22202-4508
This form is available for download at: http://arba.army.pentagon.mil/documents/dd0293.pdf
After completing the form by typing or printing the requested information, attach copies of statements or records appropriate to the case. If the board finds the individual can justly prove the case that their discharge is inequitable or improper by providing proof, they will upgrade the characterization. Evidence can include signed statements from witnesses, the individual presenting the case, or by providing copies of records that support the case. If utilizing witnesses, the defendant should provide signed statements from each witness prior to the submission of their request.
Separate Discharge Review Boards are available to veterans with regard to the particular branch in charge of their discharge. These boards include the Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The Navy controls the board for all employees and members of the Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. Non-military members are appointed by the secretary of the equivalent service branch to each board.
Keeping evidence and statements narrowed down to the duration of time spent in service is advantageous for the case and the time of the board. They will not be interested in extraneous information that is not applicable to the appropriate time period of service in question.
If all else fails and the board rejects the request, there is no further appeal with the exception of the federal court system and in such a case the individual must file a lawsuit against the Department of Defense. If new evidence comes to light after the rejection that has bearing on the case, it is possible to request the board to reconsider.