Is It Possible to Upgrade Your Military Discharge or RE-4 Code?

If you've been denied VA benefits, a discharge upgrade might help

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The status of your discharge from the military can have a huge impact on your life and your ability to collect benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As a result, you may want to seek an upgrade to your discharge, particularly if it was a bad conduct discharge or an RE-4 code that keeps you from getting a security clearance.

While anyone can apply to the appropriate Discharge Review Board (DRB) for a discharge upgrade or a change in the discharge reason, you'll have a huge hill to climb as you must convince the board that their discharge reason or characterization was "inequitable" (not consistent with policies and traditions of the service) or "improper" (it was in error or violates the law).

You Have a Right to Apply for Correction of Records

Any person who has been discharged or dismissed may apply to the appropriate service's DRB. The Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard have separate boards. The Navy operates the board for both Navy personnel and members of the United States Marine Corps.

Title 10, United States Code, Section 1553 is the law governing upgrading military discharges. This statute authorizes the secretary of the service concerned to "establish a board of review, consisting of five members, to review the discharge or dismissal (other than a discharge or dismissal by sentence of a general court-martial) of any former member of an armed force under the jurisdiction of his department upon its own motion or upon the request of the former member or, if he is dead, his surviving spouse, next of kin, or legal representative."

The boards are not allowed to revoke a discharge or recall a person to active duty. Bad conduct discharges imposed by special courts-martial are reviewed only as a matter of clemency.

If you've received an RE-4 code, that means you are ineligible for enlistment in the military except for certain moral and administration disqualifications.

Applying for an Upgrade to Military Discharge After 15 Years

Under the law, you must make your application for discharge upgrade within 15 years of discharge. If your discharge is older than 15 years, you must apply for a change to your military records.

The application is a simple process. You should use a DD Form 293Application for the Review of Discharge or Dismissal from the Armed Forces of the United States. In addition to downloading the form, DD Form 293 is available at most DoD installations and regional offices of the Department of Veterans Affairs, or by writing to your service's discharge review board.

How to Support Your Request

The board will upgrade your discharge only if you can prove that your discharge is inequitable or improper. You do this by providing evidence, such as signed statements from you and other witnesses or copies of records that support your case. You should contact your witnesses to get their signed statements with your request.

Your own statement is important. Put your statement in clear terms in section 8 of the DD Form 293. Explain what happened and why it is an inequity or improper.

Normally, the best evidence is statements from persons who have direct knowledge or involvement, for example, statements from persons in your rating chain (i.e., your supervisor, first sergeant, or commander) or a statement from the chaplain or anyone else with direct knowledge of your military service. The board is not going to be interested in your behavior or conduct after you left the military. Contain your statements to periods which were directly related to your military service.

You may wish to delay the submission of your application until information gathering is complete. You can request a copy of your military records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) to include with your application. However, keep in mind you'll have the best chance of success if you submit your request within the 15-year time limit.

How to Get Help

With few exceptions, the DRB can consider all discharges for an upgrade. The board cannot, however, change a punitive discharge imposed by a court-martial.

Most applicants represent themselves. However, you can get someone to represent you if your request is complex.

  • Many veteran service organizations have staff members who will represent you in applying to the board and assist you in completing the necessary paperwork.
  • You may hire a lawyer to represent you at your own expense.
  • Name your representative on DD Form 249, item 6.
  • If you name a representative, the board will normally deal with your representative rather than directly with you.

What to Expect in Personal Appearances Before the Board

You may request a personal appearance before the board by checking the appropriate box on DD Form 293, item 4. If you request a hearing, the board will notify you as to time, date, and place (usually Washington, D.C., although there are times when the board travels to regional areas to conduct hearings). Expenses are your responsibility.

If you fail to appear at the appointed time, either in person or by representative, you will be deemed to have waived the right to a hearing, and the DRB shall complete its review of the discharge. The board will not grant another hearing unless you can demonstrate that the failure to appear or respond was due to circumstances beyond your control.

Your hearing before the board is an administrative hearing, not an adversarial proceeding or a trial. The purpose is to determine whether your period of service was properly characterized. Only two things can happen: (1) your request can be granted or (2) your discharge can remain the same. 

Before your board appearance, you should review the examiner’s brief prior to your hearing. This brief is a summary of the available military records in your case. It contains the essential facts in your case and is put into a format that is easily read by the board members.

One board member is designated as the action officer for your case. The action officer’s job is to go through your entire record and compare it to the brief, making sure the brief is absolutely correct.

The board is usually composed of five active-duty officers and senior enlisted personnel. They each cast one vote and the majority rules.

The questioning process has a way of drawing out the truth. If you decide to give sworn testimony and are asked a question you don't wish to answer, you don't have to answer it. The decision as to which form of testimony you give, if any, is entirely yours. 

The hearing will be recorded. No one has access to the recording except you and the board members. You can get a copy by simply asking for it; no one else can get a copy without your written permission.

It will take about six to eight weeks for you to receive the board's decision. If your discharge is changed you will receive a new discharge certificate, a new DD form 214, and the decisional document of this board. If your discharge is not changed, you will receive the decisional document of this board, which will include the specific reasons your discharge was not changed and will also include any further appeal process, which is applicable to you.

How to Upgrade Re Code 4 or Other Re Codes

The Armed Forces use Reenlistment Eligibility (RE) codes to categorize individuals for enlistment or reenlistment in the Armed Forces. RE codes in the "1" series indicate a person is eligible for immediate reenlistment or prior service enlistment, provided otherwise eligible. RE codes in the "2", "3", and "4" series restrict the individual from immediate reenlistment or prior service enlistment. You must receive a review and/or waiver of these RE codes before you are eligible to enlist again.

There are many qualified prior service applicants who possess a "1" series RE code who will not be able to reenter the military due to specific needs of the service. In most cases, a person with a "2" RE or "4" RE code is not allowed to enlist. Those with an RE Code of "3" may be allowed to enlist, with a waiver, if they can show that the reason for discharge no longer applies. Such waivers are granted through the individual services through military recruiters, not the DRB process.

The Discharge Boards will not directly consider a request to change the RE code in the DRB process. There is one exception: if the DRB upgrades an applicant's discharge, the board will also consider whether the RE code should be changed. If the applicant is considered a good candidate to return to the military, the RE code will be changed to "3A"—a waiverable code.

If you are seeking a waiver or change of the RE code for the purpose of entering another branch of service, you will need to contact the appropriate service recruiter. The prerogative to waive the individual's RE ineligibility based on post-service performance and conduct rests with the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Each Secretary may allow an individual to enlist in the service under his/her jurisdiction.

The secretary of one branch of the Armed Forces has no authority to waive reenlistment/enlistment ineligibility for another service. For example, if a former Army member wishes to enlist in the Air Force, he or she must process through Air Force channels for prior service enlistment. If the RE code renders the veteran ineligible, the individual must process any review or change action through Army channels.