Military members who retire or separate are given a military discharge that may be characterized in a number of ways. The most commonly known of these are the Honorable discharge and the Dishonorable discharge. There are punitive discharges, medical discharges, and military discharges for the convenience of the government.
Those who do not receive Honorable discharges are sometimes viewed as losers, no-hopers who could not handle the rigors of military duty. But this is not necessarily true and often is NOT the case.
One only has to look at the very long prohibition of LGBTQ Americans from serving in uniform to realize that a military discharge not characterized as Honorable doesn’t automatically mean “terminated with cause”.
What recourse does a former military member have when their discharge is not Honorable? Service members can and do appeal their discharges, apply for upgrades, and become eligible for VA benefits and other options they did not have prior to their upgraded military discharge.
These appeals begin at the command level but can be elevated all the way to a discharge review board that evaluates DoD personnel where appropriate.
The Discharge Appeal Review Board (DARB)
In early 2021, the Department of Defense announced a new option–a board of appeals for service members who have separation dates on or after Dec. 20, 2019.
This entity, known as The Discharge Appeal Review Board (DARB) “will provide final review of discharge or dismissal characterization upgrade requests when petitioners have exhausted all available administrative remedies,” according to the DoD press release from April 7, 2021.
Service-Level DRB First
Discharge review boards are held at the service level, which means those looking to upgrade a military discharge must first meet the appeals submission process requirements established at that branch of military service’s level. This must be done, as mentioned above, BEFORE applying to the DoD DARB.
The basic idea is that the discharge review is settled at the lowest possible level or elevated to the DoD DARB if necessary. But there’s another reason–one to be taken quite seriously by anyone who needs to appeal a discharge. The DoD level DARB does NOT make a general provision for personal appearances before the board.
That means that unlike a service-level Discharge Review Board or DRB, at the DoD level you don’t get the ability to put a human face to your request and force a board to look you in the eyes before considering whether or not to upgrade your discharge. Believe it or not, that can make a big difference depending on circumstances.
Who To Contact For Service-Level Discharge Review Boards / Correction Of Military Records
When it comes to service-level discharge upgrade requirements, there are different standards for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. You will need to apply to your branch of service’s correction authority first:
- Air Force: Air Force Board of Correction of Military Records
- Army: Army Review Board Agency
- Coast Guard: Board for Correction of Military Records of the Coast Guard
- Navy: Board for Correction of Naval Records
- Marine Corps: Board for Correction of Naval Records
Applying For DoD DARB
After a service member or family member separated on or after Dec. 20, 2019 has exhausted “all available appeals” with the appropriate Service Discharge Review Board and/or Board for Correction of Military/Naval Records is permitted to apply to the DARB.
A legal representative may apply on behalf of incapacitated service members. The same is true for deceased service members or veterans.
As mentioned above, the DARB does not generally allow personal appearances–this is meant as a records-review process only. There are avenues to appeal this, and according to a DoD press release, “Any petitioner wishing to present new evidence must first submit a reconsideration request to, and receive a decision from, their Service BCM/NR before that new evidence may be considered.”
The DoD-level DARB is named as the “final level of administrative review” for military discharges, meaning that DARB decisions are final. There are no appeals or further consideration efforts possible beyond this point. What you get from DARB is the official, final word. That, of course, is unless future legislation alters the terms of the program or in cases where the DoD revises policy.
Air Force DARB?
One aspect about the DoD-level DARB (as opposed to the service-level DRB) that may confuse some new users is the fact that it has been placed under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force to administer. As the press release about DARB says, the program was created under the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, and the Department of Defense has named the Air Force as the “lead agent” responsible for administering the program.
Do You Need A Discharge Upgrade?
There are many reasons why veterans seek an upgraded discharge. The VA official site lists several instances that may provide “a strong case for a discharge upgrade” in the words of the VA, “if you can show your discharge was connected to any of these categories:”
- Mental health conditions, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Sexual assault or harassment during military service (at VA, we refer to this as military sexual trauma or MST)
- Sexual orientation (including under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy)
In the wake of the DARB announcement, military service organizations, veteran service organizations, and other entities have been provided information to help veterans navigate the discharge review process.
If you believe your military discharge was not just, unfair, in error, or otherwise deserves an upgrade, have a look at the Air Force Review Board Agency Portal located at https://afrba-portal.cce.af.mil. Remember, the Air Force–and this Air Force website–are the lead agency for the DoD-wide DARB so you will use this website even if you need DARB consideration as a member of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, etc.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News