How Do I Get a Discharge Upgrade?

Military service members are discharged for many reasons, including disability and as punishment for bad conduct. Discharges can saddle veterans with the stigma of having served dishonorably and even strip them of their benefits. But did you know that you can challenge your discharge status? 

All branches of the U.S. Armed Forces allow veterans access to a review board with authority to issue a "discharge upgrade," although such upgrades are not very common.

For example, an Army veteran who received a "general" discharge (meaning the service member failed to meet the Army's expectations) believes his commanding officer was biased and should have given him an "honorable" discharge (good or excellent ratings). The veteran must prove to the Army Discharge Review Board that it reached its decision in error in order to obtain a discharge upgrade.

This article covers the basics of how to pursue a discharge upgrade, with links to the appropriate military websites and information about the role of a civilian lawyer. See FindLaw's Military Law section for additional resources.

Reasons to Pursue a Discharge Upgrade

A veteran may want to pursue a discharge upgrade in order to clean his or her record or to access certain veterans' benefits. But in order to prevail, a veteran must prove that the discharge status is based on an "error, injustice, or inequity." In this sense, it is similar to the criteria for appealing a civilian court ruling. Some valid reasons to go before a review board include (but are not limited to):

  • Incorrect application of laws or procedures
  • Lack of competent legal counsel
  • Other service members of the same rank were reprimanded for the same incident but received a more favorable discharge
  • New evidence has been presented  

How a Discharge Review Board Works

You are allowed to request a discharge upgrade only twice, but must do so within 15 years of the discharge. Review boards convene in the Washington, D.C. area, but some travel to regional locations for personal appearances (check with the specific branch for more details). The boards review a veteran's application for a discharge upgrade in one of three ways:

  1. Applicant appears before the board (with or without legal representation).
  2. Attorney/counsel appears on behalf of the applicant.
  3. Board reviews the case based on existing military documentation and additional evidence (if provided by the applicant).

Service members who were discharged after being AWOL for more than 180 days are not eligible for VA benefits, regardless of whether the review board upgrades the applicant's status (unless the VA finds a compelling reason for the unauthorized absence).

To begin, you will need to fill out DoD Form 293 - Application for the Review of Discharge from the Armed Forces of the United States (PDF) and send it to the appropriate review board. If you wish to review a discharge from more than 15 years ago, complete DoD Form 149 - Application for Correction of Military Record (PDF) if you are able to clearly point out an error in your record.

You will want to include any records (medical, military, or otherwise) related to your upgrade request. For example, medical records showing treatment for PTSD may help convince the board that a particular incident was not intentional. You may also want to include a written statement from yourself and others with whom you served, post-service employment history, or even a good credit report.

Reviews last roughly one hour and typically involve five officers in addition to other senior-level military officials. If the majority of the board members vote in your favor, you will receive a discharge upgrade.

Contact Information, by Military Branch

Army Discharge Review Board
251 18th Street South
Suite 385
Arlington, VA 22202-3531

Naval Discharge Review Board (includes Marine Corps.)
Secretary of the Navy Council of Review Boards  
Attn: Naval Discharge Review Board
720 Kennon Street, Suite 309
Washington Navy Yard, DC 20374-5023

Air Force Discharge Review Board
550 C Street W. Suite 40
Joint Base San Antonio - Randolph, TX 78150-4742

Coast Guard Discharge Review Board
Commandant (CG-122)
Attn: Office of Military Personnel
US Coast Guard
2100 2nd Street S.W., Stop 7801
Washington, DC 20593-7801

Do You Need a Civilian Lawyer?

You are not required to have counsel at your hearing, but it never hurts to have representation. For instance, if your upgrade request hinges on behavior stemming from a medical issue (such as PTSD), then a disability lawyer may be able to help make your case. Attorneys also may be able to help you obtain documentary evidence and witness statements.

If you believe the board's decision was faulty, you can appeal the decision to the board of correction of your military branch with DoD Form 149 (see link, above). An appeal may also be a good time to hire an attorney.

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