The status of your discharge from the military can leave you feeling confused and upset if things are less than honorable.
Although most civilians, including employers, won’t typically ask how or why you were discharged from the service, your status can affect your VA benefits. Plus, it affects your pride in something that could’ve been seen as such an honorable duty.
The good news is, there are two different boards that can review your case and decide whether your military discharge deserves an upgrade. One is the Discharge Review Board and the other is the Board of Correction for Military Records.
You’ll only apply to one of these boards when requesting a review so it’s important to know which one is appropriate to serve your interests.
Here, we’ll go into more detail about who can get their military discharge upgraded, what you’ll need in order to apply to one of the review boards, and how to actually apply once everything is in place.
Can I Get My Discharge Upgraded?
The short answer is: yes, but it’s difficult. Though, recently, the Department of Defense has made major changes that make it a lot easier than it used to be. According to the DOD, there are tens of thousands of veterans out there who have less honorable discharges than they deserve.
If you’ve served in the military and are unhappy with your discharge status and it’s affecting your veteran benefits, it might be worth it to apply for an upgrade. The recent changes in upgrade policies are especially effective in cases of:
- Mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Sexual assault or harassment during military service
- Sexual orientation including under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy
Even if policies have changed for your particular circumstances, you’ll still need to apply for the upgrade, meaning these changes don’t happen automatically. So, if your dishonorable discharge is related to one of those four issues, it’s important to apply to the review board.
Here are a few examples of veterans who might be eligible for a military discharge upgrade:
- A veteran who served honorably and had a single bad incident
- A veteran who abused drugs and alcohol as a means to self-medicate his or her post-traumatic stress disorder
What Do I Need to Upgrade My Military Discharge?
In order to receive an upgrade to your discharge, you’ll need to have proof. You will have to show that your discharge was “improper” or “inequitable”.
If you’re trying to prove that your discharge was improper, this means that it was factually incorrect or inconsistent with the law. If you’re trying to prove that your discharge was inequitable, this means that it was inconsistent with the traditions and policies of the service.
The VA has launched an online tool to help veterans with their applications to upgrade their discharge. You’ll answer a few questions and get personalized tools to help fill out DD Form 149 (the official form for upgrading a discharge) along with recommendations for supporting documents.
The documents you’ll need to submit as proof are dependent on your circumstances. Some of the documentation you’ll need in order to apply for a discharge upgrade include:
- Your statement
- Statements from others who served in the military with you (the higher the ranking, the better)
- Character references (for example, from a boss, clergy member or teacher)
- Education records
- Post-service employment history
- Credit reports of good credit
- Information proving post-service good conduct (for example, a clean criminal record or reports of successful drug treatment)
- Medical records (if applicable and available upon request)
Even after you learn about the basics of applying and gather all the documents, the process can be incredibly difficult. So, it’s advisable to also hire an attorney to help with your application for an upgrade to your discharge status.
How to Apply to a Discharge Review Board?
First of all, it should be clear what review boards actually do.
The Discharge Review Board (DRB) can do two things:
- Upgrade discharges that are either general discharges, other than honorable or undesirable discharges, and special court-martial bad conduct discharges
- Change the reason for a discharge
On the other hand, you’ll apply to the Board for Correction of Military Records (BCMR) for:
- A general court-martial discharge
- Changing you discharge to or from medical retirement or medical discharge
Each branch of the military has its own DRB and you can apply for an upgrade either online or via mail. The application you’ll be submitted is called an Application for Review of Discharge from the Armed Services of the United States.
If applying by mail, the addresses for the review boards of each military branch are:
Army Review Boards Agency
251 18th Street South
Arlington, VA 22202-3531
Secretary of the Navy
Council of Review Boards
ATTN: Naval Discharge Review Board
720 Kennon Ave S.E., Suite 309
Washington Navy Yard, DC 20374-5023
Air Force Review Boards Agency
550-C Street West, Suite 40
Randolph AFB, TX 78150-4742
Attn: Office of Military Personnel
U.S. Coast Guard
2100 2nd Street S.W., Stop 7801
Washington, DC 20593-7801
What Happens After I Apply to Upgrade My Discharge?
There are two different ways a review board will assess your application. You’ll have the choice to decide whether you’d like a hearing or whether you’re ok with the board making a decision based on your application alone.
But, if you don’t request a hearing and your application gets denied, you can request a hearing to appeal the decision. So, basically, you have two chances to plead your case.
It can definitely be beneficial to explain your circumstances in person but all hearings take place in Washington, D.C. for which you will not be reimbursed for any expenses.
If you do request a hearing, make sure you let the board know right away if you can’t make it at your scheduled time. If you don’t show up to your hearing and you haven’t given any advance notice, you will lose your right to a hearing. The decision concerning your discharge upgrade will then rely on your application alone.
Hearings for upgrades on discharge status usually last around an hour, but they can go for longer. Usually, there with be five officers on the board and other senior members of the active military might also attend.
You do have a choice about whether or not you’ll testify at your own hearing. So, if you testify under oath, the board can ask you questions directly. If not, others will speak on your behalf. Each person gets one vote and if the majority wins, your discharge will be upgraded.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
Wondering how long it will take to receive a decision about a discharge upgrade decision?
Well, it takes one and a half to two months to hear about a decision. If it’s a yes, you’ll receive a new discharge certificate and a copy of the board’s decision. If it’s a no, you’ll receive a letter explaining why the board came back with their result.
You might also want to know if there’s an expiration date for applying to upgrade your discharge.
There is a deadline and you must apply for an upgrade through the DRB within 15 years of the date of your discharge. If applying through the BCMR, you have longer than 15 years, but again, these applications are only for corrections. The BCMR has a three-year statute of limitations but will often take late applications with a good reason for the delay.
Say you received a less-than-desirable decision. You may be looking to appeal.
You can appeal a DRB bad decision to the BCMR using Form DD 149. For appeals, you’ll also want to hire an attorney to help with the process. But yes, it can be done.
Ready to Apply?
Many veterans live with their undesirable discharge status and believe it’s an unchangeable fact. Clearly, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Policies in the military are changing all the time and, especially if you’re ineligible for VA benefits, it’s important to stay on top of what’s current in the service.
By applying to the appropriate review board, submitting as much documentation as possible, and working with an attorney to achieve the best possible outcome, your discharge can be upgraded to the status you deserve.