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Veterans Have Options to Upgrade Discharge Characterization

Individuals who left the military with a discharge that's less than fully honorable retain the right to upgrade that discharge even years later through their own military department's Discharge Review Board or through their military department's Board for Correction of Military/Naval Records.

Two hands are clasped in a handshake. A portion of the DD-214 is visible.
Shaking Hands
A Discharge Review Board and a Board for Correction of Military/Naval Records provide veterans with an opportunity to get the characterization of their discharge changed.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ter Haar, National Guard
VIRIN: 220518-A-D0439-001Y

"The department encourages all service members who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to request relief from their military department review boards," said Christa Specht, director of the office of legal policy for the office of the undersecretary  of defense for personnel and readiness. 

When a service member leaves the military, the discharge paperwork indicates not only the reason for the separation, but the character of the discharge on an official document called a DD Form 214. Most service members will leave service with an honorable discharge, but some service members might receive a less favorable characterization of their service, such as a discharge under other than honorable conditions. 

The characterization of a discharge can affect the types of benefits an individual is eligible for after military service — including educational benefits — and can also affect the kinds of jobs a former service member might be able to apply for when their military service concludes. 

There are many reasons a discharge characterization might warrant an upgrade. For example, an event that led to an other-than-honorable discharge characterization may have been driven, in part, by the presence of a traumatic brain injury or by posttraumatic stress disorder, which might not have been considered when a service member was initially discharged. 

There are two avenues former service members can use to pursue a change in the characterization of their discharge. First is the Discharge Review Board, also called a DRB. The military departments each have their own DRB. Second is the Board for Correction of Military or Naval Records, also called a BCMR or BCNR. Again, each of the military departments has its own BCMR or BCNR. 

Marines and sailors apply to the Department of the Navy boards; airmen and guardians apply to the Department of the Air Force boards; and soldiers apply to the Department of the Army boards. 

Specht said prior service members must make it clear when applying to either of these boards what it is they want to accomplish. 

Multiple service members stand in a formation.
Service members stand in a formation in Sioux City, Iowa, Sept. 11, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel Ter Haar, National Guard
VIRIN: 210911-Z-VK221-077Y

"When completing an application, it's important not only to state what kind of change is desired but to include an explanation for why the military record is unjust or wrong and, if possible, provide documents that support that conclusion," she said. 

If a discharge occurred less than 15 years ago, the former service member can apply to the appropriate military department's Discharge Review Board and ask to have the basis for discharge, discharge characterization, or re-entry code changed. 

Applying to a Discharge Review Board begins with filing a DD Form 293, Application for the Review of Discharge from the Armed Forces of the United States. The form can be filed by mail or electronically. More information on how to successfully apply to a military department's DRB can be found on Military OneSource

For any other errors on military records, if a former service member's discharge occurred more than 15 years ago or if the DRB denied a request for a particular change, former service members can apply to their military department's BCMR or BCNR. In addition to correcting a service member's basis for discharge, discharge characterization, or re-entry code, BCMR and BCNRs can make many other changes, including modifying a performance evaluation or changing a military award received. 

Applying to a BCMR or BCNR involves completing and submitting a DD Form 149. More information on how to successfully apply to a military department's BCMR or BCNR can be found at Military OneSource

"It's also important to remember that review boards are allowed to consider post-service conduct and may correct records as a matter of clemency or leniency," Specht said. "An applicant can provide evidence of a positive reputation in the community, character references, educational degrees or certificates earned, or a positive job history to help support their claim for relief. If a former member's separation from the service was due to misconduct, an applicant can include expressions of remorse or, if pertinent, evidence of a drug-free lifestyle." 

An aerial view of the Pentagon.
Aerial View
An aerial view of the Pentagon, May 15, 2023.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza, DOD
VIRIN: 230515-D-PM193-1762

For advice on which military department DRB to apply to, the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs maintain a joint website that details the process and provides a personalized recommendation. 

For additional assistance, an online video tutorial explains the differences between a DRB and a BCMR or BCNR. The video, called "Overview: Applying to the Military Department Review Boards," can be found by searching for "Discharge Review Board" in the course catalog on the MilLife Learning website.

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