Veterans Team—What is a “Bad Discharge”?

By: Karin Nordstrom, Staff Attorney

A “Bad discharge” is the term used to describe any stigmatizing discharge from the military. When a veteran leaves the military, they are given a sheet of paper called a DD-214. This one small sheet is the most important document a veteran ever receives because it is their proof of service. A DD-214 includes their discharge status and reason for separation. There are six military discharge statuses: honorable, general under honorable conditions, other than honorable, bad conduct discharge, dishonorable, and uncharacterized. Anything below an honorable discharge can create serious consequences for the rest of a veteran’s life. It can affect housing, employment, and eligibility for veterans’ benefits programs, including treatment for service-connected disabilities. This snapshot on a DD-214 sometimes unfairly stigmatizes a veteran without telling the whole story.

History of “bad discharges”
We didn’t always have this system of discharges. During World War I, the military started using “blue discharges.” These discharges were considered neither honorable nor dishonorable but were just supposed to remove members that were not fit for battle. However, they were often used for discriminatory purposes, like removing LGBTQ servicemembers. Blue discharges were also disproportionately issued to black veterans. 22.3% off all blue discharges from December 1, 1941 – June 30, 1945 were given to Black veterans, while only 6.5% of the Army was Black at that time.

After reports of overuse of blue discharges, Congress added a discharge review board in the 1944 G.I. Bill to review blue discharges. Eventually the military discontinued blue discharges in May 1947. Congress replaced them with “general” and “undesirable.” The category “other than honorable” was added during the Vietnam War. During this time, LGBTQ and members of color disproportionately received these bad discharges. In 1972, the Department of Defense released a report finding disparate treatment of Black and Latino/Latinx servicemembers in military discipline procedures.

The Legacy Continues
Many veterans get a bad discharge for circumstances beyond their control. Trauma is an occupational hazard of the military from combat, humanitarian missions, high rates of sexual assault, discrimination, etc. Many posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms like a quick temper or self-medication with drugs can look like misconduct to a military command. Many veterans find themselves with a bad discharge for misconduct that is directly linked to a service-connected disability or for unfair targeting due to a minority status.

This problem is becoming even more important as the number of bad discharges increases. In 2015, the total number of living veterans with an OTH discharge reached 1.2 million people. Army discharges for misconduct have risen 25% since 2009, mirroring the percentage of wounded veterans. At the eight Army posts which house the most combat units, bad discharges have risen 67% since 2009.

What can you do about it?
First, do not stigmatize veterans with bad discharges. Accept that the circumstances of someone’s service and discharge are complicated. They cannot be reduced to a couple of words on a page. Second, if someone you know has received an unfair bad discharge, encourage them to apply for a discharge upgrade. The application process is long and can bring back a lot of trauma for the veteran. Support them in the process and submit character references and statements of support on their behalf. If you’re a Central Ohio veteran and would like to know more about applying for a discharge upgrade, visit the veterans’ page on our website.

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