Discharge Upgrade Guide: What if I have a bad discharge from the military?

Types of Military Discharges

Honorable: You are eligible for VA health care, disability benefits, and GI Bill education benefits.

General Under Honorable: You are eligible for VA health care & disability benefits.

Other Than Honorable: You will need to ask for a discharge upgrade (federal) or Character of Service determination (local VA regional office) in order to be eligible for health care & disability benefits. There are some exceptions if you have been diagnosed with PTSD or other mental health disorders due to your time in service.

Bad Conduct/Dishonorable: Not eligible for any VA benefits without a discharge upgrade.

Uncharacterized: Neither positive nor negative. Usually means service was not long enough to characterize the type of discharge.

What Do I Do if I Have a Bad Discharge?

Apply for VA compensation or pension through eBenefits or your local Veterans Service Office.  This will trigger a Character of Service review at the VA regional office to determine if your service was honorable for purposes of VA health care and compensation.

You will likely be denied compensation if you have an Other Than Honorable discharge.  If you have a General Discharge you are generally eligible for all VA benefits except the GI Bill.

It’s very important to submit evidence that your service was honorable in order to have the best chance of being found eligible for benefits.

What to Do if the VA Denies You Disability Benefits

Submit evidence of your honorable service (good conduct awards, combat tours & medals, length of service) to the VA Regional Office to appeal the Character of Service denial.  Beware there is a one year deadline to appeal a denial.

Submit a discharge upgrade package to the Discharge Review Board (DRB) or Board of Corrections for Military Records (BCMR).  Beware of the 15 year deadline to file at the DRB.

TIP: You can file both at once!

Tips for Success

If you have more than one enlistment you may be eligible for VA health care & compensation based on your Honorable term of service.

Contact an attorney who is knowledgeable about veterans benefits and discharge upgrades.

Submit evidence of honorable service (awards, length of service, mitigating factors like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Military Sexual Trauma (MST)) to have the best chance at being determined eligible for VA benefits.

Timing is Everything

Both a Character of Service review at the Regional Office and a discharge upgrade at the Discharge Review Board (DRB) or Board of Correction for Military Records (BCMR) take over a year for a decision to be made: file both at once!

If the Regional Office finds you eligible for compensation through the Character of Service review you will start receiving benefits once your disability application is processed even if you are still waiting on a discharge upgrade decision from a DRB or BCMR.

If you receive a discharge upgrade from a DRB or BCMR, that decision is binding on the VA Regional Office and you will be eligible for benefits based on your new discharge.

Applying to the Discharge Review Board (DRB)

15 Year Time Limit!

You must apply for a discharge upgrade within 15 years of the date of your discharge-no exceptions to this time limit.

Complete DD Form 293 and mail to the appropriate address for your branch of service.

Submit Comprehensive Package

It is very difficult to get a discharge upgrade, so you should submit comprehensive evidence and/or find an attorney to help you submit a complete package. Make sure to request and submit your military records and positive post-service history.

Veteran’s Burden of Proof

Remember the burden is on you, the veteran, to prove that your discharge was improper or inequitable.  The DRB will not gather evidence or subpoena witnesses for you.

Additional Information

You can ask for a records review only and have the DRB make a decision based only on your military records and the evidence you submit.  

You can ask for a personal hearing in Washington, DC in front of the DRB.  You can ask witnesses to testify on your behalf and present evidence and testimony at the hearing.  You must pay all the costs of getting yourself and any witnessed to the hearing and the member of the DRB can question you.

Two bites at the apple: You can always ask for a records review first, then ask for a personal hearing if you are denied during the records review. However, if you ask for a hearing first, you cannot ask for a records review if you are denied at the hearing.

Types of Evidence to Submit

Military Records

  • Combat awards
  • Good conduct awards & positive performance evaluations
  • Length of service
  • Combat tour info
  • Treatment records for PTSD or MST

Civilian Records

  • 3-5 character references
  • Volunteer work & awards
  • Employment history
  • Clean criminal record
  • Education achievements
  • Marriage & birth certificates

Medical Records

  • Mental health treatment
  • Vet Center or VA counseling records
  • Group therapy records
  • VA disability ratings
  • Letter from doctor about PTSD/MST being a mitigating factor in the conduct that led to discharge

Helpful Guidance from Dept of Defense for Veterans with PTSD & Bad Discharges

Links to Discharge Review Boards

Applying to the Board of Corrections for Military Records (BCMR)

Appeal DRB Denial

If you are denied at the DRB or missed the 15 year deadline to apply to the DRB, you may apply to the BCMR for your branch of service.

Waiver of 3 Year Deadline

There is a 3 year deadline to apply to BCMR from the date of the DRB denial or discovery of the injustice, but you can make a motion to have the time limit waived “in the interest of justice.”

Broad Authority

BCMRs have broader authority to change records than DRBs, but you must try the DRB avenue first if you are within 15 years of your discharge.

Additional Information

You do not have the option of a personal hearing at the BCMR, so you must present your best case on paper.

Be sure to request your military records and submit with your application package, highlighting favorable records or any errors or injustices that occurred during your discharge.

If you are granted a discharge upgrade, a new DD-214 will be issued and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) must use your new upgraded discharge to determine eligibility for benefits.

Links to Boards of Correction

Self-Help Guides

  • See the self-help manuals produced by Swords to Plowshares and Connecticut Veterans Legal Center for more detailed information about filing your Character of Service and discharge upgrades
  • Even if the VA Regional Office finds your service honorable for VA benefits purposes, this will not change what is on your DD-214.  To change your DD-214 you must be granted a discharge upgrade at the DRB or BCMR.
  • VA information about character of service & discharges

Community Resources

  • Remember that even if you are not eligible for VA services, many community programs will help you even if you have an Other Than Honorable discharge.
  • Vet Centers offer free counseling for combat veterans, victims of Military Sexual Trauma and more.
  • Call 2-1-1 to be connected to your local resources.
  • Consider having an attorney represent you; it is very difficult to get a discharge upgrade or favorable Character of Service determination and an attorney can help you present your evidence in the best way possible.


Source: Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida

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