How to Get a Military Discharge Upgrade
It’s difficult, but not impossible, to get your bad paper discharge upgraded to honorable or get the reasons for your discharge changed.
Some veterans want their discharge changed even if they remain eligible for many VA benefits, because they feel it dishonors the service they provided to their country. Other veterans want their discharge changed because they feel that after serving their country it is grossly unfair that they are denied VA benefits.
There are two different types of military boards that can review your discharge papers. One is the Discharge Review Board (DRB), which will be discussed in this article. The other is the Board of Correction for Military Records (BCMR). Each board has different authority, which is important to understand so you will know where to apply.
It can be very difficult to get a discharge upgrade, even with the information in this article, so it is advisable to retain an attorney after you learn about the basics.
What Can a Discharge Review Board do?
Discharge review boards can do the following.
- Upgrade general discharges, other than honorable (undesirable) discharges, and special court-martial bad conduct discharges, and
- Change the reason for discharge.
If you have a general courts-martial discharge or want to a change your discharge to or from medical retirement or medical discharge, you will have to apply to the Board for Correction of Military Records. DRBs do not have authority to make these sorts of changes.
Can I Get a Discharge Upgrade?
You can apply to the Discharge Review Board (DRB) of your branch of the service for a discharge upgrade or a change in the discharge reason (that is, character of service). To get your discharge upgraded or your character of service changed, you will have to show that your discharge was “improper" or "inequitable." Improper means factually incorrect or inconsistent with the law. Inequitable means inconsistent with the traditions and policies of the service.
An example of a discharge that qualifies for an upgrade might be that a veteran served honorably and had a single bad incident or was abusing drugs or alcohol as a means of self-medicating post-traumatic stress disorder.
How to Apply to a Discharge Review Board
Discharge Review Board. Complete an Application for Review of Discharge From the Armed Services of the United States. You can complete it online, or get it from a local Department of Defense installation or the regional office of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Either submit the application online or mail it to the address below for your branch of the service. Be very thorough in your application about all the reasons you believe you are entitled to an upgrade. Any issues you neglect to list will not be considered by the board, even if you or your lawyer raise them later on.
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
US Coast Guard
2100 2nd Street S.W., Stop 7801
Washington, DC 20593-7801
What to Submit With Your Application
Request your military and/or medical records so you can submit any needed records with your application. For information about obtaining your records, visit the National Personnel Records Center website.
Submit any medical and/or military records that relate to the issues that relate to your upgrade request. For instance, if you are arguing that post-traumatic stress disorder caused the bad conduct that led to your "bad paper," it will be important to get a medical opinion from a doctor supporting your claim. Medical records showing you are clean and sober will also help.
In addition, submitting the following may influence the Discharge Review Board in your favor:
- your statement
- statements from others you served with (as high ranking as possible)
- character references (from an employer, clergy, or others)
- educational records
- post-service employment history
- credit reports showing good credit, and
- information about your good conduct after service (including a clean criminal record).
Discharge Review Board Hearing
On your application, you have a choice about whether to ask for a DRB hearing or ask the DRB to make a decision based on your application. If you ask the DRB to just review your records without a hearing, and they deny your application, you can then submit a request for a hearing. This gives you two chances to get a favorable decision.
Sometimes it helps to present yourself at a hearing where you may be able to establish a personal rapport with the DRB. However, hearings often take place in Washington, D.C. and you will not be reimbursed for any of your expenses.
A disability lawyer may be able to help you decide which course of action is best for you.
If you do request a hearing, once it is scheduled let the DRB know right away if you can’t make it. If a hearing is scheduled and you don’t show up, and you didn’t give advance notice that you needed to reschedule, you will lose your right to a hearing. The DRB will then issue a decision based on your application and other records.
What Will the Hearing be Like?
A hearing will often last about an hour, but possibly longer. Usually the Discharge Review Board consists of five officers and other senior members of the active military. You have a choice about whether to testify or not. If you testify under oath, the members of the board can ask you questions. Some vets prefer to make a statement (not under oath) to avoid this.
Each person gets one vote, and you will be awarded a discharge upgrade if the majority of the board members cast a vote in your favor.
How Long Will it Take to Get a Decision?
It often takes a month and a half to two months to find out the board’s decision. If you get the upgrade, you’ll get a new discharge certificate, DD-214, and a copy of the board’s decision. If you don’t get the upgrade, you’ll get the board’s letter explaining their decision.
How Long Do I Have to Request an Upgrade?
You have 15 years from the date of your discharge to apply for an upgrade to your discharge status or the reason for your discharge through the Discharge Review Board (DRB). If it’s been longer than 15 years, even though the DRB can't help, you can still request a “correction” to your military records from the Board of Corrections for Military Records (BCMR). There is a three-year statute of limitations for submitting requests to the Board of Corrections for Military Records but very frequently BCMRs accept late applications as long as a good reason for the delay is provided.
How Can I Appeal a Bad Decision?
You can appeal a bad Discharge Review Board decision to the Board of Correction for Military Records of your branch of the service using DD Form 149, which can be found on the DOD forms website. Again, hiring a disability attorney can help you win a discharge upgrade on appeal.