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. To avoid this, veterans can request a Character of Service Determination.
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 are not processed through the VA. Instead they are handled by Discharge Review Boards (DRB) and Boards of Correction for Military Records (BCMR). Processing of the applications can take many years, and the success rate for these requests is rather low.
Requesting a Character of Service Determination (CSD) is an alternative to those lengthy processes that more often than not have poor results. CSDs are processed more quickly than discharge upgrades or record corrections and have favorable results more often.
Character of Service Determinations are processed by the VA. You can ask the VA for a CSD, and if you receive a favorable decision, your discharge status will remain the same but you will be able to get most VA benefits, such as health care and disability compensation.
Not all veterans are eligible for Character of Service Determinations. You will be ineligible if any of the following are true.
In some cases, you will also be ineligible for a CSD if you went AWOL (absent without leave) or had an unauthorized absence (UA) for at least 180 days in a row, and there no compelling circumstances to explain your absence. Compelling circumstances can include family emergencies or severe combat injuries.
When evaluating the fact that you were absent from duty, the VA will consider how long you had served prior to your absence, as well as the quality of your service. The longer the period of honorable service, the more likely it is that the VA will consider you for a CSD even though you went AWOL.
Your age, education level, and cultural upbringing are other factors the VA will consider when deciding if you are eligible for a CSD. For example, if you have a high school education and were 18 when you went AWOL, the VA will expect you to have less sound judgment than a 30-year-old with a college education. Some leeway will be given to you for being young and inexperienced.
You do not 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 CSD.
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 form any court-martial you were subject to. (Read Nolo's article that explains how to request military records.) If you can, get letters from your buddies or the commander of your former military unit attesting to your good character.
When the VA considers whether to provide you with a favorable character of service determination, several factors are considered. Your entire history of military service will be reviewed and evaluated as a whole. Basically, the VA will decide if, overall, your service was so honorable that it would be unfair, based on the facts of your case, to deny you VA benefits.
For instance, if you were placed in leadership positions, had exemplary service and were rapidly promoted to E-5, received medals, and got caught once with drugs, the VA may it unfair to deny you benefits, especially if you saw combat and developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On the other hand, if you had mediocre service and frequent misconduct on your record, your chances of getting a CSD are decreased.