Types of Military Discharges

Many civilians commonly assume that people “retire” from the military when they leave the service, which isn’t always the case. Receiving a discharge, or separation, is not the same thing as military retirement.  A military discharge is simply defined as a military member being released from their obligation to continue service in the armed forces. A discharge relieves the veteran from any future military service obligations where as a retired reserve individual may be called back to active duty.  A separation from the military can be voluntary or involuntary, and may leave additional unfulfilled military service obligation that will need to be carried out in the Individual Ready Reserve. It’s important to note that there are several types of military discharges, and these can have a profound impact on a veteran’s ability to receive veterans benefits, serve in government employment, reenlist in the military, and more.

Types of Military Discharges

Military discharge rating - types of military dischargesThe type of military discharge a veteran receives will be listed on his or her DD-214 Military Discharge Paperwork. The following are a list of various types of military discharges:

Honorable Discharge

If a military service member received a good or excellent rating for their service time, by exceeding standards for performance and personal conduct, they will be discharged from the military honorably. An honorable military discharge is a form of administrative discharge.

General Discharge

If a service member’s performance is satisfactory but the individual failed to meet all expectations of conduct for military members, the discharge is considered a general discharge.  To receive a general discharge from the military there has to be some form of nonjudicial punishment to correct unacceptable military behavior. A general military discharge is a form of administrative discharge.

Other Than Honorable Conditions Discharge

The most severe type of military administrative discharge is the Other Than Honorable Conditions.  Some examples of actions that could lead to an Other Than Honorable Discharge include security violations,  use of violence, conviction by a civilian court with a sentence including prison time, or being found guilty of adultery in a divorce hearing (this list is not a definitive list; these are only examples).  In most cases, veterans who receive an Other Than Honorable Discharge cannot re-enlist in the Armed Forces or reserves, except under very rare circumstances.  Veteran’s benefits are not usually available to those discharged through this type of discharge.

Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD)

The Bad Conduct Discharge is only passed on to enlisted military members and is given by a court-martial due to punishment for bad conduct.  A Bad Conduct discharge is often preceded by time in military prison.  Virtually all veteran’s benefits are forfeited if discharged due to Bad Conduct.

Dishonorable Discharge

If the military considers a service members actions to be reprehensible, the general court-martial can determine a dishonorable discharge is in order.  Murder and sexual assault are examples of situations which would result in a dishonorable discharge.  If someone is dishonorably discharged from the military they are not allowed to own firearms according to US federal law. Military members who receive a Dishonorable Discharge forfeit all military and veterans benefits and may have a difficult time finding work in the civilian sector.

Officer Discharge

Commissioned officers cannot receive bad conduct discharges or a dishonorable discharge, nor can they be reduced in rank by a court-martial. If an officer is discharged by a general court-martial, they receive a Dismissal notice which is the same as a dishonorable discharge.

Entry Level Separation (ELS)

If an individual leaves the military before completing at least 180 days of service, they receive an entry level separation status.  This type of military discharge can happen for a variety of reasons (medical, administrative, etc.) and is neither good or bad, though in many cases, service of less than 180 may prevent some people from being classified as a veteran for state and federal military benefits.

How to Upgrade a Military Discharge

In some situations, you may be eligible to apply to have your military discharge upgraded to a higher rating. However, despite, the rumors, there is no automatic upgrade process. You must apply to have your discharge upgraded by downloading DD Form 293Application for the Review of Discharge or Dismissal from the Armed Forces of the United States. You must then submit the form to the Discharge Review Board within 15 years of your discharge. If your discharge was more than 15 years ago, you must request a change to your military records. Here is more information about military discharge upgrades. It is a complicated process, and one that is often best done with the help of legal assistance.

How Military Discharge Information Should Be Used for Job Interviews

This information should be used as a reference only – especially if you are an employer researching a job applicant. Due to legal issues surrounding Equal Employment Opportunities and related laws, one should be careful in the interview process. It is generally illegal to ask which type of discharge a military veteran received, unless it is to ask whether or not an applicant received an Honorable or General Discharge if you are ascertaining whether or not the applicant qualifies for veteran’s preference. Read more about illegal job interview questions.

However, even if the veteran did not receive one of these types of discharges, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were discharged for bad conduct, as the reason could have been a medical discharge or other administrative discharge. It is usually best to keep the line of questioning centered around the job applicant’s experience and qualifications. For example, you can ask them if they have military service,the period of their service, rank at time of separation, type of training, leadership, and work experience, qualifications and certifications, and anything else relevant to the specific position for which they are applying. See your Human Resources office for more information.

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Date published: January 19, 2011. Last updated: January 26, 2015.

Article by

Ryan Guina is the founder and editor of this site. He is a writer, small business owner, and entrepreneur. He served over 6 years on active duty in the USAF and is currently serving in the IL Air National Guard. He also writes about money management, small business, and career topics at Cash Money Life. You can also see his profile on Google.


  1. Lisa latham says

    Hi my name is Lisa Latham, I hope you can help me my brother Robert Paul Richards, was enlisted in the Marines and was doing boot camp at Parris Island S.C. 1973, he received a honorable discharge or medical discharge, he is unsure, it was due to his eyesight, where would I begin to to help him look for his records, and is he qualified for any benefits? Please help,

    • says

      Paula, Thank you for contacting me. No, you cannot receive a Dishonorable Discharge for a legitimate medical reason. I recommend speaking with a Judge Advocate General (JAG) or other legal representation for more specific advice if there has been discussion regarding a Dishonorable Discharge for medical reasons. There would need to be other circumstances to receive a Dishonorable Discharge.

  2. Susan Chandler says

    I am doing some genealogy research of certain veterans and came across records noted with the term “discharged by purchase.” I assume it means the service member wanted to leave the service before his commitment was up and bought out the remainder of his contract, but I’m not really sure. I tried looking it up on Google, but I didn’t find anything but your website, so I though you could help. The definition is not relevant to my research, just curious.

  3. trina says

    My son served his term with an honorable discharge and re listed. This time he got oth. Is he still eligible for benefits with his honorable discharge.

    • says

      Trina, generally it is the final discharge that is considered when it comes to benefits. I recommend your son sit down with a VA representative to determine which benefits he is eligible to receive.

  4. Karen says

    Hello Ryan,

    My son has just started basic boot camp for the Navy and is being told there is a strong possibility of being medically discharged for having a migraine. He does not have a history of migraines so I am in shock. He did have a bad headache but considering that he does not have a pattern of migraines I am not sure why this is grounds to be medically discharged.

    Can you please advise what he can do? His dream is to continue his path in the Navy and ultimately work in the medically field as a PA.

    Is there a way to help him not get medically discharged??

    Thank you so much for your time and input.



    • says

      Karen, Thank you for contacting me. I wish I could help you, but I really don’t have any insight into medical conditions and how they are treated by each respective branch of the military. The only advice I can offer is to make sure he requests a second opinion if the Navy is going to discharge him for a condition he has never previously had. There isn’t much else I know to do. Sorry I can’t offer any better guidance. But I do wish him the best, and I hope he is able to serve in the Navy.

  5. Patricia Napoli says

    My husband is being discharged for mental health/depression. What kind of discharge would that fall under?

    • says

      Patricia, To be honest, there is no way for me to know. It could be a medical discharge, which is often under Honorable conditions. It could be a General discharge, which is also often referred to as an administrative discharge. There may also be other factors involved that I am not aware of that could impact the discharge rating. All factors are considered by the member’s unit, which will usually determine the discharge status.

      I hope your husband will receive the help he needs – either from the military, or through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Be sure to set up appointments with the VA before he separates. They may offer him benefits of access to programs where he can receive help. I wish you both the best.

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