Serving in the military is a sacrifice. When your service is complete, you want your record of service to be accurate and helpful. If you are a veteran who was discharged for misconduct, you may find yourself missing out on veteran benefits and being rejected by potential employers. This commentary will give you an overview of the ways you can change your record. Changes to incorrect information can be made, and even accurate information can be changed under certain circumstances. The process can be complex and time consuming, so being knowledgeable about the process will improve your chances for success.
Every branch of the military has a discharge review board (DRB) and a board for correction of military records (BCMR). If you are struggling after your discharge because of negative information in your record, there may be a way to have that information corrected or removed. If you were discharged with a less than honorable discharge, there is a process to have your discharge upgraded.
One huge misconception is the “Dishonorable Discharge.” If you were not discharged by a court, you do not have a dishonorable discharge. Non-court discharges are called administrative discharges. In an administrative discharge, there are three characterization options: Honorable; General (Under Honorable Conditions); and Other than Honorable (OTH). To be clear, even though an OTH is a less than honorable discharge, it is not as bad as a dishonorable discharge.
Even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website uses confusing terminology. The characterization generally required to receive VA benefits is described as, “under other than dishonorable conditions” meaning that even an OTH discharge may be eligible for some VA benefits.
If you are not sure what type of discharge you have, you may want to request a copy of your military records. Everyone who has served in the military has an Official Military Personnel File (OMPF). Your OMPF should include nearly everything that happened to you while you were in the military. It is an administrative record of your service history, including your duty stations, duty assignments, schools attended, training qualifications, evaluation reports, and awards and decorations. Your OMPF may include documentation of any misconduct, nonjudicial punishment, reprimands, or court-martial proceedings. There will also be a copy of your DD-214 that includes your separation information. It includes the reason you were separated, your characterization of service, and your reenlistment eligibility code. You can request your records by submitting a SF-180 to the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC).
While every situation is unique, and each veteran will have their own circumstances for wanting to change or delete information in their military record, there are several common requests. Many veterans want to upgrade their discharge, so it is no longer less than honorable. Some want to improve their narrative reason for separation or improve their reenlistment code. Others just want negative information removed from their file. All of these can be done, but like everything else in the military, there are regulations and processes that are unique to each branch. All branches have a board for correction for military records (BCMR) and all use the DD Form 149. The DD-149 starts your application and outlines what you want the board to consider. You should be specific and clearly state what you are asking the board to do. Before you apply to your branch’s BCMR you must exhaust other remedies. You can apply to make changes to your record as a veteran or while still on active duty. If you are still on active duty, you need to start with your chain of command. If there is a local administrative remedy that will fix your issue, you must start there. Each branch has their own rules for how requests to remove unfavorable information are handled.
If you need to fix clerical errors, such as a name misspelling, incorrect date of birth or incorrect social security number, you should contact the NPRC. If the NPRC can help you, it will solve your problem much faster than applying to your branch’s BCMR. If you are trying to address missing or incorrect awards, you should first apply to your branch’s award board and then, if you are denied, apply to your branch’s BCMR. When you apply for VA benefits, the VA will review your record. The VA will make its own determination of whether your service was honorable for VA purposes. If you are interested in obtaining VA benefits and services that you are currently not receiving because of the characterization of your service, you can request a VA Character of Discharge Review. This is a separate process from any application you are making to a BCMR.
Another separate process is the application to remove or expunge investigation-related information from your military file. If you were investigated for a crime, it is possible that when a background check is completed on you, the negative information from the investigation will result in you not being able to obtain a security clearance or a common access card (CAC). This can happen even if you were never charged with a crime or convicted. If you did nothing wrong, and were ultimately exonerated, you might think your record would be updated to reflect that. Unfortunately, that is not what happens. The standard for titling is “credible information,” a standard lower than probable cause. This titling enters you into multiple national criminal data bases where you will remain unless and until you take action to have yourself removed.
For most veterans, the DRB is a necessary stop before the BCMR. The DRB reviews an applicant’s discharge for propriety and equity, and looks at many factors when making this review. The board even considers the direction your life has taken since discharge. While there is no law or regulation requiring the board to upgrade your discharge based solely on your good conduct as a civilian after leaving the service, demonstrating to the board that you are positively contributing to society may help you establish a meritorious post-service case.
All military careers end: that is a fact. Another fact is there are likely errors in your military record. Take the time to obtain your record, know what is in your record, and apply to have your record corrected. Under 10 USC Section 1552, “the Secretary of a military department may correct any military record of the Secretary’s department when the Secretary considers it necessary to correct an error or remove an injustice.” So even if your record is factually accurate, it is possible to obtain relief in the interests of justice. Do not let your service record keep you from your dream job or obtaining a security clearance or base access. Take the necessary steps to improve your record and your situation.
David Johnson, a graduate of Regent Law School, is a former active duty Army judge advocate, paratrooper, and combat veteran. He saved the careers of countless soldiers as one of the top JAG military defense attorneys, and now he continues to represent service members as the Military Practice Group Director at Invictus Law in Virginia Beach, VA. He can be reached via www.invictus-law.com or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.