Types of Military Discharges – Understanding the Difference

There are many types of military discharges, including an honorable military discharge, general discharge, under other than honorable conditions, bad conduct discharge, dishonorable discharge, and entry-level separation. This guide explains the difference among these types of military discharge ratings.
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types of military dischargesU.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Erick Requadt
Table of Contents
  1. Types of Military Discharges
  2. Administrative Separations
    1. How Does the Administrative Separation Process Work?
  3. Honorable Discharge
  4. General Discharge
  5. Other Than Honorable Conditions (OTH) Discharge
  6. Punitive Separations
    1. Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD)
  7. Dishonorable Discharge
  8. Other Military Discharges
    1. Officer Discharge
    2. Entry-Level Separation (ELS)
    3. Medical Discharge
  9. How to Upgrade a Military Discharge
  10. How Military Discharge Information Should Be Used for Job Interviews

Many civilians assume people “retire” from the military when they leave the service, which isn’t always true. Receiving a discharge — or separation is not the same as military retirement.

When the military releases a member from their obligation to continue serving, it’s called a military discharge. A discharge relieves the veteran from any future military service obligations, whereas an individual in the retired reserve may be called back to active duty.

Types of Military Discharges

The type of military discharge a veteran receives will be listed on their DD-214 military discharge paperwork.

Separations can be voluntary or involuntary and may leave additional unfulfilled military service obligations the service member must carry out in the Individual Ready Reserve.

There are several types of military discharges, but they fall under two main categories for enlisted personnel, administrative separations (or ad-seps) and punitive discharges.

A punitive discharge can have a profound impact on a veteran’s ability to receive veterans benefits, serve in government employment, reenlist in the military, and more.

However, when your command recommends an involuntary separation through a non-judicial process, it is called an administrative separation.

Administrative Separations

An administrative separation can happen because of a minor offense to more serious offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), such as refusing to comply with the 2021 COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Similar to being fired in the private sector, an administrative separation can occur for several reasons, including:

  • Non-performance of duties or poor duty performance.
  • Insubordination.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Inability to meet weight, body composition, or fitness standards
  • A civilian criminal conviction
  • An officially filed memorandum of reprimand.
  • Repeated misconduct, which includes two or more minor disciplinary actions.

How Does the Administrative Separation Process Work?

If your command issues an administrative separation, you will receive a written notification.

The written notice will outline your recommended characterization of service and the basis for the separation. Your rights will depend on how many years of service you have. It may also depend on the characterization of recommended service.

As a service member, you might be separated based on one of three categories:

  • Honorable
  • General
  • Other than Honorable


Honorable Discharge

If a military service member receives a good or excellent rating for their service time by exceeding standards for performance and personal conduct, they can receive an honorable discharge. You may be able to reenlist in the same or different branch of service or enter federal service if you received an honorable discharge.


General Discharge

A service member may receive a general discharge under honorable conditions if their performance is satisfactory but the individual failed to meet all expectations of conduct for military members.

To receive a general discharge from the military, there has to be some form of nonjudicial punishment to correct unacceptable military behavior or failure to meet military standards.

The discharging officer must give the reason for the discharge in writing, and the military member must sign paperwork stating they understand the reason for their discharge. Veterans may not be eligible for certain veterans’ benefits under a general discharge, including the GI Bill.

Likewise, a member might be unable to reenlist or enter a different branch of the service.

Other Than Honorable Conditions (OTH) Discharge

An “other than honorable conditions” or OTH discharge is the most severe kind you can get without a court martial. It follows a pattern of significant departure from behavior, omission, or conduct expected of military members.

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 OTH discharge cannot re-enlist in the armed forces or reserves, except under very rare circumstances. Veterans’ benefits are not usually available to those who receive these discharges.

Punitive Separations

There are two kinds of punitive separations a military service member can receive:

  • Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD)
  • Dishonorable Discharge

Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD)

Only enlisted members can receive a Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD), and only through a court-martial due to punishment for bad conduct.

Time in a military prison usually precedes a BCD.

Virtually all veterans’ benefits are forfeited if discharged due to bad conduct.

Dishonorable Discharge

If the military considers a service member’s actions to be reprehensible, the general court-martial can determine if a dishonorable discharge is in order.

Murder and sexual assault are examples of situations that would result in a dishonorable discharge. If someone is dishonorably discharged from the military, they are not allowed to own firearms according to U.S. federal law.

Military members who receive a dishonorable discharge forfeit all military and veterans’ benefits and may have difficulty finding work in the civilian sector.

Other Military Discharges

Other types of military discharges include officer discharges, entry-level separations, and medical discharges.

Officer Discharge

Commissioned officers cannot receive bad conduct discharges or dishonorable discharges, nor can they be reduced in rank by a court-martial. If a general court-martial discharges an officer, 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 various reasons (medical, administrative, etc.) and is neither good nor bad, though in many cases, service of less than 180 days may prevent some people from being classified as a veteran for state and federal military benefits.

Medical Discharge

A service member may receive a medical discharge or separation if a medical or mental condition prevents them from continuing to serve.

Two medical review boards determine medical discharges: the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) and the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB). A service member’s commanding officer can also begin the medical discharge process.

Before being discharged, service members have the right to receive counseling or rehabilitation.

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, there is no automatic upgrade process.

You must apply to have military discharges 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 of senior officers and noncommissioned officers within 15 years of your discharge.

Your commander’s opinion does not assure the board’s decision. Instead, the board can make independent recommendations to the senior commander for final approval.

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. If you’re trying to have your discharge upgraded, you should seek legal assistance.

How Military Discharge Information Should Be Used for Job Interviews

In an ideal world, employers would only use military information as a reference when screening an applicant.

Due to legal issues surrounding equal employment opportunities and related laws, employers shouldn’t ask what type of discharge a military veteran received unless it’s about a security clearance or the applicant’s qualification for veteran’s preference points.

However, a veteran’s discharge rating is private information. That means private employers can’t request verification of a veteran’s type of discharge without their permission.

Even if a veteran did not receive an honorable or general discharge, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were discharged for bad conduct. 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 may ask them if they have military service, the period of their service, rank at the time of separation, type of training, leadership, work experience, qualifications and certifications, and anything else relevant to the specific position for which they are applying.

When in doubt, check with your human resources office.

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  1. Kelly Watson says

    Thank you for your response and the information about benefits. I’m familiar with a lot of the benefits that we are promised. However, like most combat veterans, I approach the VA with extreme prejudice. If the VA was serious about helping veterans, then why would we need advocates, and lawyers to fight for us and force them to keep their promise. When I enlisted on my 17th birthday, I raised my right hand and swore a soldiers’ oath. I’ve kept my oath. I can’t say the same for the VA. If it wasn’t for places like this, we wouldn’t have benefits.

  2. Paul Birden says

    There is another kind of discharge that was not mentioned, the “Blue Discharge”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_discharge. Although it was discontinued in 1947, there may still be some older vets….in their late 90’s probably,… who received a “Blue” discharge and who are still discriminated against. I learned of this discharge about ten years ago when a friend’s father died but could not receive certain veteran benefits from the time of his discharge in 1945 until 2010, when his “blue” discharge was officially upgraded…to either general or honorable, I do not remember. Less than a year after his record was finally cleared, he died. In this instance, racism was involved.

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