A core mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs is to provide health care to veterans, especially those who have disabilities related to their service. Recently, DAV leaders have heard that some veterans are not even being allowed to apply for VA health care and instead are being turned away by the VA because of their final other than honorable discharge characterizations such as general discharge, other than honorable conditions or entry level separation. Each type of characterization has a unique set of circumstances for each discharged veteran, and even if not characterized as honorable service, the characterization that is assigned is not necessarily a ban to receive medical care at the VA or to qualify for other state or federal benefits.
Recognizing that many veterans with other than honorable discharges served in combat or under hardship conditions and may have incurred physical and mental wounds because of that service, Congress and the secretary of veterans affairs expanded access to VA health care for these veterans. According to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report, approximately two-thirds of service members separated for misconduct had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or another mental health condition, and government leaders acknowledge that in many instances those conditions contributed to the circumstances that led to the other than honorable discharge.
“We are troubled to hear that the VA might be turning away veterans from getting needed care,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Randy Reese. “These veterans may be eligible for some health care services, and at the very least, they have the right to apply and get a decision.”
The VA estimates that there are about 500,000 veterans currently living with other than honorable discharges. In part due to the discharge status itself and the prevalence of service-related mental health conditions, other than honorably discharged veterans are at twice the risk of suicide, are more likely to be homeless and face barriers to stable employment. While they can apply to the military review boards for a discharge upgrade, those boards have long wait times and low grant rates.
“Congress gave the VA the independent authority and responsibility to decide whether an individual veteran with an other than honorable discharge should receive access to VA health care and other benefits,” said Reese. “We at DAV are working to ensure that no veteran is denied the right simply to apply.”
A veteran with an other than honorable discharge may be eligible for VA health care and benefits like compensation, pension and vocational rehabilitation if the VA finds that the veteran’s service was honorable for VA purposes. Veterans with other than honorable discharges who are interested in applying for VA benefits have a right to submit an application and receive a written decision. DAV national service officers can help veterans fill out an application and assist them through the VA’s character of discharge determination process.
We want to hear from you
DAV, in partnership with the Veterans Legal Clinic of Harvard Law School, is interested in hearing from veterans who have other than honorable discharges and were turned away from receiving health care at the VA. If you are or know such a veteran, please fill out and mail the response card in this magazine. You can also respond by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by speaking to a DAV national service officer. To find the service officer nearest you, visit DAV.org, hover on the “Veterans” tab and click “Find Your Local Office.”