Can I Get Disability Benefits After an Other Than Honorable Discharge From the Military?

Your eligibility for service-connected veterans disability compensation benefits and VA health care benefits will vary depending on the type of discharge you received when you left the military. Generally, unless you have “bad paper” (a discharge that is not fully honorable), you are eligible for these benefits.

However, in the following situations you will also be denied benefits:

  • Your own misconduct caused your injury or disability.
  • The injury or illness arose while you were AWOL, or
  • Your disability was caused while you were in prison for a felony or being held for a court martial.

Types of Discharges and Benefits Eligibility

If you received an Honorable Discharge, Medical Discharge, or General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions, you are eligible for both disability compensation and VA health care.

If you were given a Dishonorable Discharge or Bad Conduct issued by a General Court Martial, you are not eligible for either disability compensation or health care benefits.

If you were given a Bad Conduct Discharge issued by Special Court Martial, or an Other Than Honorable Discharge (formerly known as an Undesirable Discharge), the VA will determine on a case-by-case basis whether you are entitled to benefits. The Veterans Administration (VA) will consider all the facts surrounding your service and decide if the quality of your service qualifies you for disability compensation and VA health care. This is called a "character of service" determination. However, even if you are not approved for benefits on the basis of your character of service evaluation, there is an important exception for health care benefits.

Service-Connected Health Care Exception

For Other than Honorable and Undesirable Discharges, as well as Bad Conduct Discharges issued by Special Court Martial, you may still be entitled to limited health care for certain heath care conditions, even if the VA deems you ineligible for VA health care in general. You will still be able to receive health care for any conditions you have that are service-connected or that were aggravated by your service.

What if I Have More Than One Period of Service?

If you had two or more periods of service, and one period ended and a day or two later you reenlisted, you may be eligible. If you received “good paper” for the first period of service, and “bad paper” for the second, you may be eligible for disability compensation and health care for any disabilities that occurred or were aggravated during your “good” period of service. If you were injured during the “bad” period of service, you are out of luck unless the VA issues you a good character of service determination.

There is another exception. If, before the end a period of service, the military issues a conditional discharge to allow you to reenlist, you may remain eligible for benefits. Even if you got “bad paper” when you ultimately got discharged, if your period of service preceding reenlistment would have entitled you to an honorable discharge, then you will be eligible for compensation and health care. However, you will only receive benefits for any disabilities caused or worsened during the “good” period of service. You will not get benefits for any injuries incurred after the reenlistment which ended in bad paper unless the VA issues you a positive character of service determination.

Can I Change “Bad Paper”?

Yes, if you are dissatisfied with the VA's determination of your character of service, you can apply for a discharge upgrade. Each branch of the military has two entities that handle requests for discharge upgrades, a Discharge Review Board (DRB) and a Board of Correction for Military Records (BCMR).

Discharge Review Boards

The Discharge Review Board (DRB) cannot upgrade a discharge issued from a General Court-Martial. But the DRB does have the authority to upgrade the following:

  • an Other Than Honorable discharge to a General or a Honorable Discharge
  • a Bad Conduct Discharge issued after a Special Court-Martial to an Honorable, General, or Other than Honorable Discharge

Each branch of the military has its own DRB. Visit the appropriate DRB website for more information:

Board of Corrections for Military Records

The Board of Correction for Military Records (BCMR) can do the following:

  • Review a decision made by the DRB and change it.
  • Upgrade discharges, including Bad Conduct Discharges or Dishonorable Discharges resulting from General Courts-Martial.
  • Change discharges to or from medical/disability retirement to allow a veteran to receive a VA pension.

Visit the Board of Corrections for Military Records to locate the BCMR for your branch of service.

Further Assistance

It can be helpful to talk to a disability lawyer about your eligibility for disability compensation, especially if you've been denied benefits. An attorney can also help get your records corrected and your discharge upgraded, so that you can become eligible for benefits. Visit Nolo's legal directory of attorneys to locate a lawyer to help you with your discharge upgrade or to help you obtain your compensation or VA health care benefits.

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