If you received a discharge under conditions "other than honorable," you ordinarily are not eligible for most VA benefits. But if you served for two or more separate periods in the military or reenlisted for a new period while still in the service, under some circumstances you can still be eligible for veterans benefits. As long as you served for a total of 24 months, you can be eligible for benefits such as education and health care. Your eligibility for disability compensation will depend on some complex factors.
Suppose you served a full period in the military, received good paper such as an honorable discharge, and immediately re-enlisted for a new period of service that ended with bad paper. You will be eligible for disability compensation benefits only for the period of service that ended with an honorable or under honorable conditions discharge. If you were injured during the enlistment period that ended with bad paper, you will not will be eligible for disability compensation.
You will remain eligible for VA benefits such as health care and education based on your "good" period of service, even if your bad paper was as serious as a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge.
Suppose you signed up for a period of military service, and before that period ended, you went ahead and reenlisted for a new period of service before being discharged for the first. Since you technically were not discharged, the military gives you what is called a "conditional" discharge. It's conditional because you agreed to immediately reenlist.
DD-214 discharge papers are not issued upon conditional discharge. But if you completed your second period of service and received a discharge under other than honorable conditions ("bad" paper), you still might be eligible for VA benefits in some cases.
Whether you are eligible for benefits despite your bad paper depends on whether you would have been technically eligible to receive an honorable discharge at the end of your first period of service. If your military records show that, yes, your first period of service would have ended in "good paper" if you had received a DD-214 instead of a conditional discharge, you will be eligible for VA benefits such as education and health care.
Your eligibility for disability compensation after a conditional discharge will depend upon when your injury or illness first arose during service. If you got hurt during your "first" period of service that would have ended in good paper had you received a DD-214 (instead of reenlisting and getting a conditional discharge), then you will be eligible for disability compensation.
However, if you got sick or injured during the second period of service that ended under other than honorable conditions, then you will not be eligible for disability compensation. You could, however, try to get a character of service determination (if you are eligible; see above) that could allow you to get disability compensation.
Suppose you "extend" your first period of military service without actually reenlisting, can you be eligible for VA benefits if you receive bad paper when you leave the service? The answer, unfortunately, is no, because your service is viewed as one long period of service that ended with an ineligible discharge.
If you cannot recall whether you had a conditional discharge, an extension, or a back-to-back discharge, you can request your military personnel file so you can find out. You can request this file from the National Personnel Records Center online by using using eVetRecs. For more information about the request process, read Nolo's article about obtaining your military records.
Oftentimes veterans with conditional or back-to-back discharges get denied VA health care even though they are eligible. This happens because the VA Medical Centers don't have access to all of your military personnel records or don't understand that you are eligible for VA health care based on a "good" period of service even if you had one dishonorable discharge. If this happens, you'll need to get in touch with your VA Regional Office. It is the VA Regional Office that determines your eligibility for health care, not the VA Medical Center.
If you received back-to-back discharges, bring a copy of your DD-214 discharge paper to your medical center. If you are still denied care, talk to your VA Regional Office.
If you had a conditional discharge, you probably will not be able to get the medical center to understand you are eligible for care. You'll want to speak to your VA Regional Office and submit military personnel records showing you would have been eligible for good paper at the end of your first period of service. When you send in these records, include a letter stating that you are asking the VA to tell you if you are eligible for VA benefits, and ask for an eligibility letter to be sent to the VA Medical Center.
In your letter to the VA, include all dates pertinent to your service, such as the date of your first enlistment and the date your first enlistment period would have ended (but for your conditional discharge and reenlistment). Explain that the military personnel records you are submitting show that you had a good character of service up until the date your first enlistment would have ended, had you not reenlisted before it was over.
If you find that you are ineligible for disability compensation due to your bad paper, you can ask the VA for a character of service determination (CSD). If successful, you would become eligible for compensation even though your actual discharge was still negative. However, not all discharges are eligible for a CSD.
You will be ineligible for a character of service determination by the VA if any of the following apply to you.
For more information, read Nolo's article about getting a CSD.
If you are not eligible for a Character of Discharge determination, or if you receive an unfavorable COD, you can still apply for a discharge upgrade or a correction to your military records to establish eligibility for benefits.