Is it Possible to Upgrade Your Military Discharge?

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While anyone can apply to the appropriate Discharge Review Board (DRB) for a discharge upgrade or a change in the discharge reason, the individual must convince the board that their discharge reason or characterization was "inequitable" or "improper."

Inequitable means the reason or characterization of the discharge is not consistent with the policies and traditions of the service. Improper means that the reason or characterization of the discharge is in error (i.e., is false, or violates a regulation or a law).

For example, an "Inequity" would be: "My discharge was inequitable because it was based on one isolated incident in 28 months of service with no other adverse action." "Improper" would be: "The discharge is improper because the applicant's preservice civilian conviction, properly listed on his enlistment documents, was used in the discharge proceedings."

Your 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 Court-martials are reviewed only as a matter of clemency.

When and How to Apply for an Upgrade 

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 293, Application for the Review of Discharge or Dismissal from the Armed Forces of the United States. In addition to downloading the form, The DD Form 293 is available at most DoD installations and regional offices of the Veterans Administration, or by writing to Army Review Boards Agency (ARBA), ATTN: Client Information and Quality Assurance, Arlington, VA 22202-4508. Contact them by phone at (703) 607-1600.

You should complete the form very carefully by typing or printing the requested information. Attach copies of statements or records that are relevant to your case. Make sure you sign item 9 of the form. Mail the completed form to the appropriate address on the back side of the form.

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. It is not enough to provide the names of witnesses. The board will not contact your witnesses to obtain statements. 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. Make sure you carefully read the instructions on the back of the form. 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, 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. This is only a general rule, however.

You must decide what evidence will best support your case. 

It may take you some time to gather statements and records to support your request. You may wish to delay submission of your application until information gathering is complete. You might wish to request a copy of your military records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) to include with your application. You should submit your request within the 15-year time limit.

Getting Help

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

Most applicants represent themselves. If your request is complex, you may want someone to represent you:

  • 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 also hire a lawyer to represent you at your own expense.
  • You should 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.

Advice and guidance are available from many sources. Military Personnel specialists can advise you on personnel issues. Veteran service organizations will advise you even though you decide to represent yourself. You may discuss your case with a board staff member, or you may write to the board, and a staff member will respond to your questions. Several attorneys specialize in military discharge review processes.

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 incurred are completely your responsibility. The government will not reimburse you for travel expenses.

If you, after being notified by letter of the time and place of the hearing, fail to appear at the appointed time, either in person or by representative, without having made a prior, timely request for a continuation, postponement or withdrawal, 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 one of 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. In doing so, this individual becomes very familiar with your case. If any of the board members have questions concerning the documentation in your record, either during the hearing or afterward during the board deliberations, these questions will be addressed to the action officer who will get the document in question for the decision of the board.

The board is usually composed of five active duty officers and senior enlisted personnel. They will usually be dressed in civilian clothing, which is purely for your benefit; to help put you at ease and to create a more relaxed atmosphere. They each cast one vote and the majority rules.

The questioning process has a way of drawing out the truth. If you do 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. It provides a record of the proceedings but beyond that, it gives the board a chance to rehear your testimony after you have left the room and sometimes this can be very important. 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. 

Changing Reenlistment Eligibility (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/she must process through Air Force channels for prior service enlistment. If the RE code renders the veteran ineligible, he/she must process any review or change action through Army channels.