DUI In the Military – Career Impact, Court Martial, & Civilian Charges

Preface: In the civilian world, there are professions where the impact of DUI conviction might not have an effect on the person’s career.  Not so with the military.  In the military, a DUI conviction is only the beginning, as it will have a direct career impact on the servicemember’s career. As you know, driving under…
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Preface: In the civilian world, there are professions where the impact of DUI conviction might not have an effect on the person’s career.  Not so with the military.  In the military, a DUI conviction is only the beginning, as it will have a direct career impact on the servicemember’s career.

As you know, driving under the influence is extremely dangerous and is a leading factor in many car accidents. But you already know that. We are going to focus on the military aspects of a DUI, particularly its impact on your ability to accumulate long-term wealth over the course of a career.  After all, the best financial planning advice is this:  Avoid bad decisions that lead to life-changing incidents. 

DUI:  Non-military impact

There are many websites that clearly outline the costs of a DUI.  These include fines, court costs, bail, and lawyer fees.  They also include incidental & ongoing costs, such as administrative hearings, towing & impound, DUI classes, engine interlock devices, and increased cost of car insurance.  Depending on which state you live in, you can expect to pay $8,000 to $20,000 in total costs for a first DUI conviction.  You can find a ton of pages with the cost break down on the first page of Google under “financial implications of a dui.”

DUI:  Military Impact

What you won’t find on Google is how this will impact your military career.  There are two significant impacts.

First, a DUI is punishable under the UCMJ.  Each service has policies that regulate how DUIs are prosecuted.  This could be in conjunction with, or completely separate from, any applicable civilian punishments. This means you may be subject to a court martial.

Second, there is almost always a secondary impact in terms of maintaining a security clearance.  Most military occupational specialties have a requirement for obtaining and maintaining a security clearance.  Having a DUI conviction almost certainly eliminates the possibility of being able to do so.

DUI Case Study

We’re going to run the numbers by using a case study.  This is a hypothetical case study based upon a Sailor whom I worked with a few years ago.  Although I’ve changed some things, the basics are the same.

Petty Officer Jones is a hard working E-5, who has been in the Navy for 12 years.  He’s been on USS Neversail for about a year. Petty Officer Jones’ peers respect him.  He just got frocked to E-6.  To celebrate, he went out with a group of friends on the night of his frocking.  In case you’re not familiar with the term ‘frock,’ it means that he is wearing the new paygrade on his uniform, but is still receiving E-5 pay.  He thought he was all right to drive, but ended up with a DUI on the way home.  Now, his command knows about it and has decided to take him to CO’s mast (Navyspeak for non-judicial punishment, or NJP, proceedings).

Let’s look at three different scenarios that could play themselves out.

DUI Scenario 1:  No Demotion

This is the least costly scenario.  It’s also the most unlikely scenario, as most commanding officers will assume that a newly frocked petty officer is not deserving of their paygrade if they get convicted of a DUI.  Even so, you can rest assured that:

  • Petty Officer Jones will NEVER get promoted. In the Navy, selection boards determine E-7 promotions.  The selection board reviews each record and makes a determination from the pool of applications.  DUI convictions are the first things a board screens out.
  • Petty Officer Jones will get the crappiest jobs and the crappiest evaluations (fitness reports). There are duties & responsibilities that no one wants to take on.  Extra watches, urinalysis coordinator, mess deck master at arms…when a command’s got fitrep fodder like Petty Officer Jones, it doesn’t matter.  The chiefs will unload the scut work on someone like Jones so they can free up their superstars (and mid-ranking people as well) to look good.
  • Petty Officer Jones will struggle to retirement (maybe). It will be a tough stretch to make it to a 20-year career here.  Depending on where the military is at a given time, this would be a great excuse to cut bait on a person without as much promotion potential.  After having fought two major wars, the military is looking for every opportunity to downsize and cut costs.

DUI Scenario 2:  Back to E-5

This is the most likely scenario, if the commanding officer takes into consideration extenuating circumstances.  This could include previous performance, favorable endorsements from his chain of command, and whether or not he has a family that depends on his income.  A reduction to E-5 just means a reversion to the mean…he lost a promotion that he ‘unearned’ with his DUI.  However, this means everything outlined above PLUS:

  • High Year Tenure. Every service has an ‘up or out’ philosophy.  When I first joined the Navy, E-5s used to be able to retire at 20 years.  Now, the Navy’s high year tenure policy forces them out at the 14 year point.  In addition to the other stresses, Petty Officer Jones now has to think about what life will look like when he reaches his 14 year mark in 2 years.  Because it won’t be in the Navy.

DUI Scenario 3:  Reduction to E-4

This is the ultimate low blow.  Not only does Petty Officer Jones have his promotion taken away, but he gets busted a rank.  In the Navy, being frocked to E-6 means that you’re an E-5 who is wearing E-6 rank insignia.  So it’s possible (and I’ve seen it happen) for a frocked E-6 to be demoted to E-4.  And it sucks every bit as much as you think.

  • High Year Tenure. In addition to everything outlined above, Petty Officer Jones’ high year tenure has just been moved up.  To now.  The Navy’s policy for E-4s is that they are administratively processed at the 8 year mark.  Being a 12 year E-4 is not good for any service, especially when many initial enlistment contracts have automatic advancement to E-4.  Why would the Navy want to hold on to someone who spent 12 years getting to the same point a teenager could get to coming out of boot camp.  They wouldn’t.

Post-Military Considerations

We didn’t get into any of the other military considerations, such as service-specific policies or calculating the financial impacts of NJP proceedings and demotions.  However, no service wants to keep employing people whom they feel are ‘dead weight.’  In today’s day and age, someone who doesn’t have promotion potential is exactly that.  And they’ll be cut loose as soon as possible.  In the Navy, a 2nd DUI conviction confers an automatic administrative separation, regardless of paygrade.

Let’s look at some other impacts:

Personal life:  Imagine the military spouse who sacrifices so much to find out that due to no fault of their own, their entire livelihood is in serious jeopardy.  Marriages usually don’t survive that.  Children find it hard to forgive the parent whose avoidable mistake causes so much damage.

Civilian employers:  Civilian employers don’t want to hire a person with a DUI on their record.  It’s hard enough to translate your military value to a civilian employer.  With a DUI conviction, it can be nearly impossible.

Starting your own business:  Even if you decided to start your own business, you’d run into some problems.  Here are a couple of examples:

Certification boards & business registrations:  You meet the requirements for a professional certification.  That’s great!  Now, you’re going through the process to be certified in your specialty.  You might find that you’ll have to disclose your DUI and present it for consideration.  While a DUI by itself might not disqualify you for consideration, it doesn’t help.

For example, the CFP® Board requires certificants to notify the board within 10 working days of a DUI conviction.  Additionally, most states (and the SEC) require financial planners to disclose DUI convictions on their form ADV.  This is the form that a planner must present to each client and prospective client when beginning their engagement.  Would you hire a financial planner with a DUI conviction?  Perhaps, but most people would probably say “Why bother?”  It’s not just truck drivers….lawyers, CPAs, doctors all have to disclose DUI convictions.

If you’re in a line of work that requires people to trust you, you’ll probably have to disclose your DUI.  And that doesn’t convey trust.

Getting a loan:  Banks aren’t going to loan to someone who can’t prove income.  Or who have to disclose convictions on their record.


This article probably didn’t go the way you expected.  It didn’t go the way I expected either.  When I started, I thought I’d just crunch some numbers, throw them out there, and go from there.

Then I started thinking about what happens in the long-term.  Specifically, what would happen to someone like me?  What would happen to someone who invested so much time, effort, and personal sacrifice into a military career?  I’d lose a lot.  And so will anyone who gets a DUI in today’s day & age.

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