If you are not satisfied with the discharge or characterization of service that you received from the military, you have the option of applying for an upgrade. An upgrade can change your characterization of service, the reason for the discharge, and your re-enlistment code. It can also change your discharge to medical retirement or remove “bad paper”, such as a negative performance evaluation or psychological evaluation. Note that as of September 2014, veterans discharged with combat related post traumatic stress (PTSD) under other than honorable conditions in an era before PTSD was a diagnosable condition (Vietnam, Korea, etc.) can seek an upgrade even if they were previously denied one. If you are a survivor of military sexual trauma, you are eligible for medical benefits at the VA regardless of your discharge.
In December 2016, the Department of Defense announced new outreach efforts to correct past records. The emphasis of these efforts is to correct past mistakes involving veterans who received OTH discharges and "bad paper" and suggests a new willingness to reconsider bad discharges.
One of the most prevalent myths about discharges is that they automatically upgrade after 6 months. There is nothing automatic about discharge upgrades. Each applicant must make the case for upgrade based on the specific circumstances of their discharge. The burden of proof is on the applicant to show why the original discharge was incorrect. The upgrade process is long and generally takes at least a year to receive an answer.
Before beginning the upgrade process, it may be helpful to check in with the VA to see if your current periods of service and characterizations already qualify you for the benefits you seek. Sometimes when a person is seeking specific VA benefits, a Character of Service Determination (CSD) can be a shorter avenue to obtaining the benefit. Although it does not change the overall service record, the VA can award benefits through a CSD, and the process is much quicker than applying for an upgrade.
If you decide you need to pursue an upgrade, you may want to start by obtaining your complete military service records in order to clarify the recorded military version of what happened when your discharge was given.
At this time the GI Rights Hotline does not have the staffing and resources to prepare discharge upgrade applications for people. There are a number of other groups and resources a person can use to get started. For a detailed description about how to upgrade your discharge, see the following on-line resources:
Upgrading Your Discharge and Changing the Reason for your Discharge by Swords to Plowshares
American Veterans and Servicemembers Survival Guide (see chapters 15 and 16) by Veterans for America
Veterans Discharge Upgrade Manual by the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center
Discharge Upgrades by the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild
In addition to guides listed above, there are also legal resources and other organizations that provide help in obtaining VA benefits. Civilian attorneys can be hired to process upgrade applications. To find an attorney to assist you with your upgrade, one resource is the Military Law Task Force. There are also different legal organizations that provide free legal help to veterans (see The American Bar Association and Free Legal Clinics in VA Facilities), as well as Veteran Service Organizations that may assist with discharge upgrades. NABVETS has also helped with upgrades and can be reached at 877 622 8387.
Another helpful resource is the boards' online reading room which lists past board decisions with explanations of how the board came to its conclusions.