When you are still in the military and preparing to be discharged, you may not be thinking about applying for VA benefits or upgrading your discharge. You are more focused on getting back home after a long tour of duty or a series of tours of duty. But if you spent a little bit of time now thinking about these issues, it could help you protect your rights and the rights of your family later on. Plus, it will save you hours of headaches and work if you do later decide to seek veterans benefits or upgrade your discharge.
Important Information About Discharges
If you are going to get a discharge that is less than fully honorable, please be aware that your discharge will not get automatically upgraded after six months. This is simply not true in any way. If you expect you'll get bad paper, consult with a veterans law attorney prior to discharge. The National Lawyers Guild has a Military Law Task Force that may be able to assist you pro bono.
To protect your rights, take the following steps before your discharge is final.
If You Are Ill or Injured, Get Treatment
Eligibility for most VA benefits requires that you be able to prove your disability first began while you were on active duty. This is really hard to do, and sometimes impossible, if you did not seek treatment for the disability before discharge. Seek treatment from a VA doctor right away, before you leave the military. That way there will be a record of the disability, and this can help you and your family to receive substantial cash benefits.
If you are uncomfortable getting medical treatment from the military, go see a private doctor. Make sure you keep all of the doctor's contact information in case you need to get your medical records later on.
Participate in Your Separation Medical Exam
When you go to your separation medical exam, make sure to report all of your mental and physical problems. Pay attention to whether the doctor writes down what you say, and encourage the doctor to record all of your complaints. If the doctor is rushing you, tell him or her that you want a comprehensive exam.
Also, record all of your physical and mental problems on the military form Report of Medical Assessment. If you don’t know whether you are going to apply for veterans benefits, it’s ok to say so on the form. You can change your mind later.
Report Harassment and Discrimination
If you are experiencing any form of discrimination, report it before you leave the military. Make sure to report it in writing. File a discrimination complaint with the Inspector General or the Equal Opportunity Office. Keep copies of all your reports and complaints, and hold onto all the response that you receive from the military.
Keep detailed notes of incidents of discrimination and of any conversations you have with the military about it. Note who you talked to, the date, and what was said. Keep copies of any correspondence you send to your friends or family in which you talk about the discrimination. All of this can serve as evidence later on, if it is needed.
If you are being harassed, sexually harassed, abused, or discriminated against by your Commanding Officer, you have the right to file a Request for Redress (Article 138 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice provides for this). This is a way of asking for the problem to be fixed. If the problem does not get fixed, you then have the right to request redress from any officer who is superior to your commanding officer. Keep copies of all documents you submit and receive from the military in regards to your request for redress.
Collect Your Military Records
Before your discharge, you should try to get your hands on all of these records:
- Service Record Book/Official Military Personnel File.
- A complete set of your service medical records, starting with your enlistment exam and ending with your discharge exam.
- Any psychiatric records. These are sometimes stored separately at the military center where you received treatment. You will need to request those records directly from the medical hospital or clinic that gave you treatment. Use the release form Authorization for Disclosure of Medical and Dental Information to make this request. If the medical center will not give you the records, you can ask a civilian counselor or attorney for help.
- Any records from an alcohol or drug treatment program. You will need to request these separately.
- Any incident reports, log books, and other documentation. These types of records are often destroyed after only two years, so it is especially important to do your best to get copies of these.
- Any Equal Opportunity Report or Inspector General Reports filed by you or someone else in your unit, if you think you might need them.
- Records from any criminal investigation that was done on you. Ask the investigating agency for these.
- Records from any proceedings you were involved in, such as judicial proceedings. For instance,
- get summaries or transcripts from any board hearings
- ask for a copy of the transcript if you were subject to a court-martial
- get a summary for any Article 32 hearing, and
- ask for your discharge packet for any discharge related issues.
If the time comes after discharge when you want to apply for VA benefits, request a military records correction, or apply for a discharge upgrade, you will be very grateful to have taken the time to collect these records before you left the military. For help locating the various records, read our article on requesting VA records.
Importance of Getting Navy Records
The Navy frequently destroys sailors' service records. Therefore, it is especially important for sailors to insist on getting copies of all of their service records before going home. Otherwise, it may be impossible to get the records later on.