Advising Veterans: How the DD214 Is Crucial to Life After Military Service

By Jennifer Andrus

Advising Veterans: How the DD214 Is Crucial to Life After Military Service

7.13.2022

By Jennifer Andrus

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When separating from military service, the discharge form that all service members receive called the DD214 is an important document affecting everything from employment to veterans’ benefits.

The NYSBA Committee on Veterans held a workshop on how attorneys can help clients correct errors and petition military review boards to change or correct a discharge status. Committee co-chair Chad Lennon moderated the panel, which has experience both in the military courts and working in the private sector helping veterans.

By the Numbers

The DD214 lists important service dates and locations, awards, commendations and training dates. The first step in preparing a case to petition for changes is to check the accuracy of these dates and collect service related paperwork from the client.  The DD214 also contains discharge and reentry codes that are crucial to a veteran’s future. They detail how one left the service and if the military branch would allow you to reenter the service.

There are five types of discharges: honorable, general under honorable conditions, other than honorable, bad conduct and dishonorable discharge. The last two are punitive and denote a federal conviction resulting from a court martial. Retired Army Lt. Colonel and JAG officer Gary Port described two lesser-known forms of discharges.

“Officers will get something called the dismissal, which is similar to a dishonorable discharge when there is entry level separation, which often happens in boot camp. Things just don’t work out and they say, ‘Let’s part company.’ It’s like you were never here,“ says Port.

An honorable discharge is seen by outsiders as a gold standard in civilian life. But panelists warn that the Department of Defense bureaucracy is more complicated. There are dozens of internal DOD codes not publicly disseminated that may reveal cases of misconduct, dismissal in lieu of court martial, unresolved addiction, or substandard performance. The Department of Defense contends these SPN codes are not derogatory to the veteran, but panelists disagree.

“You walk into an employer with a DD214 honorable discharge and they see a code for substandard performance. They are not rushing to hire you,” said Port.

Roy Diehl of the Veterans Defense Program told the panel there are no standards for what constitutes misconduct. Diehl has successfully argued before military corrections review boards to change service records.

“A young, enlisted person may have an attitude conflict with a commander. There is no context on the DD214. There are conclusions that are very challengeable,” said Diehl. “They give you presumption of events that may not have actually happened or not happened as presented.”

A reentry code is another part of the DD214 form that can affect a veteran’s future. On a scale from 1 to 4 the codes indicate how qualified the veteran is for reenlistment with little to no justification.

Diehl says the decisions by young commanders can impact an enlisted person for decades. “Did that 27-year-old captain have the good judgment to say this should be a lifetime brand on this 21-year-old kid’s life? It’s utterly braindead, but that is how the military functions.”

Medical discharge or those related to drug offenses offer several grounds to challenge information on the DD214. The panel outlines strategies including looking for chain of custody issues with evidence or problems with drug labs used by the military.

Oswego County Assistant District Attorney Chatal Wentworth-Mullin says the military is now recognizing the effects of medical conditions like post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. She says new regulations in all military branches require screening for these issues along with military sexual trauma as part of the exit process. The omission of screenings is another factor to consider in challenging a discharge code.

Understanding the Discharge Review Board

Chad Lennon of the Tully Rinckey law firm outlined the review boards in each service made up of three members whose names are known only by their initials. The board can take one to two years to decide a case.

Chantal Wentworth-Mullin says the first client consultation is the time to discuss the client’s goal. “Some clients aren’t looking for a discharge upgrade, they just want to get back in.” Wentworth-Mullin told the panel she helped many veterans trying to rejoin the service following 9/11.

Panelists say the attorney for the veteran has the burden to prove the error or omission in military records. “To get an upgrade you have to show that the military is wrong and violated its own regulation,” Port says.

Port says building a petition for the military review board takes time and can require multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for service and medical records. He also suggests requesting files from military police agencies such as NCIS and Army CID.

Panelists also shared successful strategies for presenting the progress made by veterans in drug and alcohol recovery. Their sobriety and commitment to community service helped sway the board to upgrade a discharge.  Roy Diehl says the Army will consider a mercy defense but the Navy and Marine Corps will not.

Lennon says a change in status can mean the difference between benefits and no benefits.

“When you have a less than honorable discharge, you start losing VA benefits and it starts with the education benefits. It can impact your disability compensation or not receiving medical care from the VA.”

 

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