If you were discharged from active duty with a less than fully honorable discharge, you have what is called "bad paper." Bad paper can prohibit you from receiving VA benefits such as health care and disability compensation.
Veterans with bad paper can request a "character of service" determination (also called a "character of discharge" determination) in order to establish eligibility for VA benefits under title 38 of the U.S. Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.
When you separate from service, the VA will assign you a characterization based on how well you discharged your military duties. The Department of Defense authorizes six characterizations of military service:
Veterans with honorable or general discharges are typically eligible for the full spectrum of VA benefits. For more information, see our article on eligibility for VA benefits depending on type of military discharge.
Veterans with bad paper sometimes seek a discharge upgrade or a correction to their military records in order to become eligible for VA benefits. But discharge upgrades and requests to have military records corrected aren't processed through the VA—they're handled by Discharge Review Boards (DRB) and Boards of Correction for Military Records (BCMR). DRB and BCMR processing can take many years, and the odds that you'll get a favorable result are low.
Instead, you can request a character of service determination as an alternative to lengthy DRB and BCMR processing that usually won't result in you becoming eligible for benefits. Character of service determinations are handled by the VA and are processed more quickly than discharge upgrades or record corrections. You'll also be more likely to have a favorable decision—while your discharge status remains the same, you'll be able to get most VA benefits.
Eligibility for service determinations depends on the character of discharge. Veterans who separated from service under the following situations won't be eligible for a character of service determination, and can't receive any benefits under 38 U.S.C. §5303 or 38 CFR §3.12:
If none of the above conditions apply to you, then you're eligible for a character of service determination. Or, if the VA determined you weren't sane at the time of the incident that resulted in discharge, you can get a character of service determination.
The VA will review your entire history of military service and decide if, on balance, your service was so honorable that it would be unfair to deny you benefits. When making a determination, the VA considers the following:
For example, if you were placed in leadership positions, had exemplary service, were rapidly promoted to E-5, received medals, and got caught once with drugs, the VA may find it unfair to deny you benefits—especially if you saw combat and developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result. On the other hand, if you had mediocre service and frequent misconduct on your record, your chances of getting a character service determination will decrease.
You don't have to submit a special application to be considered for a character of service determination—all you need to do is apply for VA disability compensation or pension. After you apply, the VA will see that you have "bad paper." The VA will then send you a letter and tell you what documentation you need to submit in order to request a service determination.
The documentation you want will be in your military records. Obtain your military personnel records and any criminal investigation records, as well as a transcript from any court-martial you were subject to. (Read Nolo's article that explains how to request military records.) If you can, get statements from your buddies or the commander of your former military unit who can attest to your good character.
Updated May 31, 2023