Famous Sayings: #87 — ‘Dishonorable Discharge’

November 11, 2017

He left the Army with a dishonorable discharge, so it’s hard for him to find work.

dishonorable discharge, Veterans Day, Bowe Berghdahl, church shooting, famous sayings
Bowe Bergdahl was recently given a Dishonorable Discharge from the U.S. Army because he deserted his post in Afghanistan in 2009.

Tomorrow is Veteran’s day, but the phrase we’ll be looking at deals with shame. This might seem like an inappropriate way to honor military veterans, but this phrase also deals with the somber news from this week and earlier this month. In particular, there were two people in the news who were dishonorably discharged from the United States military and this presents an opportunity to learn about military discharges and their implications.

What Is a Dishonorable Discharge?

At the end of a person’s military service, a person may be given a discharge certificate which specifies why that person left the military. Is a person had to leave early for reasons that include serious misconduct, that person’s certificate will list a Dishonorable Discharge. This is a dubious way for someone to leave the United States Armed Forces.

Overall, six types of discharges:

  • Honorable Discharge
  • General Discharge
  • Other-Than-Honorable Conditions Discharge
  • Bad Conduct Discharge
  • Dishonorable Discharge
  • Officer Discharge

The first three discharges are administrative, which mean each is done via “everyday separation and paperwork.” The last three discharges are punitive, which mean each is given “as punishment for some serious wrongdoing.”


An Honorable Discharge is, of course, the absolute best type of military discharge. This type is a type of administrative discharge and it is given to a military service member who “received a good or excellent rating for their service time by exceeding standards for performance and personal conduct.”

A General Discharge, another form of administrative discharge, is given if a service member failed to meet all expectations of conduct but their overall performance was satisfactory. The recipient of this discharge would have had to be given “some form of non-judicial punishment to correct unacceptable military behavior.”

An Other-Than-Honorable Conditions Discharge is the most severe administrative discharge that can be given. A service member who receives this has committed security violations, acts of violence, was convicted in a civilian court, or committed adultery. This person will usually lose all veteran’s benefits.

A Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD) is given to enlisted military members via a court-martial due to punishment for bad conduct. This type of discharge often follows time spent in military prison. Veterans who are given a BCD forfeit virtually all of their military benefits.

A Dishonorable Discharge is one of the most severe, but it is determined by a general court martial after a military deems a military service member’s actions to be reprehensible. Anyone who receives this type of discharge forfeits all military and veteran’s benefits.

An Officer Discharge is the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, yet for commissioned officers (McClean).

Reasons Why Someone Is Given a Dishonorable Discharge

A dishonorable discharge may be given for the following reasons (via Legal Dictionary):

  • A service member went AWOL (absence without leave), meaning they abandoned their post or failed to return (in a timely fashion).
  • A service member is guilty of sedition, meaning they tried to convince others to disregard orders or was a part of a plan to overthrow the government.
  • A service member is guilty of sexual assault, by which they forced any type of unwanted sexual contact on another person.
  • A service member committed murder (intentional killing) or manslaughter (unintentional killing).

How a Dishonorable Discharge Affects Those Who Have It

In 2013, NPR talked to dozens of former service members who received dishonorable discharges, and shared stories of two men, Eric Highfill and Reed Holway. The former was dishonorably discharged after becoming addicted to painkillers and getting a DUI. The latter was dishonorably discharged after developing PTSD and striking his girlfriend’s child.

Between 2003 and 2013, 100,000 service members were dishonorably discharged. Highfill and Holway’s stories were used to highlight how dishonorable discharges follow former service members for their entire lives. While their behavior was unbecoming due to military (and societal) standards and inexcusable, they were essentially left high and dry after serving and being sent to fight in foreign wars. They might even fulfill their other duties in service, by a dishonorable discharge negates all of that.

Former service members like this suffer because a Dishonorable Discharge follows them wherever they go.

They are barred from receiving Veterans Affairs benefits (including being served in VA hospitals) and they are barred from benefiting from the G.I. Bill because they aren’t considered veterans (Lawrence and Peñaloza).

They are shunned by veterans.

They are also out of luck when it comes to most employment opportunities, and receiving unemployment benefits or any government benefits (Ducharme). Many veterans end up homeless and this is part of the problem (Lawrence and Peñaloza).

But there’s more.

Dishonorably discharged service members may not be allowed to own guns, run for public office, or vote (Hirby).

What About the History of Dishonorable Discharges?

There is a long and twisted history behind discharges outside of honorable ones and it’s almost as old as the United States itself. Much of the motivation behind the non-honorable discharges was discrimination of the racial variety and against homosexuals.

The first ever Dishonorable discharge was given by George Washington on March 11, 1778 as he approved the dismissal of Frederick Gotthold Enslin, who was found guilty of sodomy and perjury. Yet a month earlier, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a German general who was run out of his country for being a homosexual, was brought in to train the American Army during the Revolutionary War. Steuben also received a congressional pension after the war.

During World War I in 1916, Blue discharges (also known as “blue tickets”) were deployed to get rid of homosexual service members. This rank was neither honorable nor dishonorable.

Blue Discharges were handed out during World War II, as well. Since the Second World War was a total war, there was no time for court martials for homosexual conduct “offenses”; therefore, homosexuals were directly given blue tickets. In addition, Black soldiers were disproportionately handed Blue Discharges.

Of the 48,603 Blue discharges issued by the Army between 1 December 1941, and 30 June 1945, 10,806 were issued to African Americans, 22.23% of all Blue discharges at a time when African Americans constituted 6.5% of the Army.

In 1944, Congress decided to look into possible abuses of the discharge system before it began work on the G.I. Bill. The House Committee on Military Affairs convened a special committee to review the Veteran Administration’s procedures and to provide recommendations.

Despite these recommendations, the VA and military branches continued to discriminate against service members who committed homosexual acts or were suspected of being homosexual. In the mid-1940’s, there were four distinctions for discharges: Honorable, General, Undesirable (or Other Than Honorable), and Dishonorable. Service members who were suspected of being homosexuals were ususally given undesirable discharges while those who committed homosexual acts were given dishonorable discharges. This practice was continued until “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was approved as a policy in 1993 (“History”).

What Are Some Recent Examples?

There is actually one example of a Dishonest Discharge here, while the other highlights how a technical loophole could be fatal.

Bowe Berghdahl

Bowe Bergdahl was deployed to Afghanistan in May 2009. He left his post and was captured in Paktika Province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.

Bergdahl was held captive by the Taliban and the al-Qaida-aligned Haqqani network for five years. During that time, his captors released a few videos of him and he was promoted (to a specialist on June 12, 2010 and to a sergeant on June 12, 2011). Six other soldiers died while trying to rescue Bergdahl.

A Controversial Deal

The United States acknowledged it had started a dialogue with the Taliban in 2012 and in 2014 the Obama Administration announced a deal to facilitate Bergdahl’s release on May 31, 2014. As part of the deal, the U.S. sent five Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Qatar.

Three days after Bergdahl returned to the States, the Army announced that a two-star general would open up an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s decision to leave his post in 2009. Bergdahl retained a lawyer a full month later.

The Case

On March 3, 2015, Bergdahl was formally charged. He received one count of desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty and one count of misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit, or place. He pled guilty to desertion in October 2017 (CNN Library).

On November 3, 2017, Bergdahl was given a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Army in lieu of a prison sentence. Prosecutors in the case had sought 14 years in prison for Bergdahl, who was found guilty of desertion and misconduct in front of an enemy. Instead, the judge in the case, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, gave Bergdahl the dishonorable discharge, reduced Bergdahl’s rank to private, and fined him $10,000 — $1,000 to be paid each month from paychecks.

The sentence is effective immediately, but it will be reviewed. Also, Bergdahl planned to appeal the decision (Andone, Valencia, and Yan).

Devin Patrick Kelley

On November 7, 2017, 46 people were shot by one gunman at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland, Texas. Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26-year-old man who received a bad conduct discharge from the U.S. Air Force, started shooting outside the church around 11:30 am local time. Kelley, who was clad in all-black tactical gear, soon entered the church and shot most of his victims there.

Kelley exited the church and was accosted by a man with a rifle. There was a brief gunfight, after which Kelley dropped his assault rifle and fled to a nearby county. The other man soon found another man with a gun and the two followed Kelley.

When Kelley was found by law enforcement, he was pronounced dead. His body had three gunshots, one in the leg, one in the torso, and what was determined a self-inflicted wound to the head.

After all this, it was determined that Kelley had killed 26 of his victims. One was Annabelle Polmeroy, the 14-year-old daughter of the pastor (who was out of town). Eight of those killed were from the same family: that of the visiting pastor, who was also killed. The victims ranged from a 17-month-old baby to a 77-year-old (Hanna and Yan).

About Kelley’s Discharge

Kelley once served in logistic readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, starting in 2010. He was court-martialed in 2012 after being charged with two counts of violating Article 128 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for assaulting his wife and their child (Browne, Perez and Prokupecz). He was sentenced to 12 months in custody and given a Bad Conduct Discharge.

Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, he should not have received any firearms. The conviction should have barred Kelley from purchasing the gun. Yet he had several guns in his possession, some of which were found in his vehicle (Cloud and Lauter). He purchased the Ruger AR-556 he used during his attack from an Academy Sports & Outdoors store in San Antonio, TX in April 2016. He had purchased four weapons from 2014-2017.

Also, those who wish to purchase guns have to go through a background check and fill out an ATF form 4473. However, Devin P. Kelley was able to slip through the cracks because of a clerical error and his own dishonesty.

The US Air Force acknowledged Kelley’s court martial conviction was not entered into the federal law enforcement database at the National Criminal Information Center, information that might have prevented gun sales to Kelley. Federal law prohibits people convicted of a misdemeanor crime involving domestic violence from owning firearms.

If Kelley had a dishonorable discharge, he would have been immediately barred from purchasing guns. However, the conviction, if processed, would have had the same effect.

In his paperwork, Kelley checked off the box indicating he had no disqualifying convictions (Willingham).

The Reaction

The recent shooting brought to light how soft Texas gun laws were. In the state, no one needs to have a license to purchase a handgun or a long gun, but they need a license to carry a handgun. Also, there were no laws governing the purchase of assault rifles; there was one but it expired in 2004. Additionally, there is no waiting period.

But of course, there are many who said this was a mental health issue.

From CNN:

President Donald Trump condemned the shooting as an “act of evil” and called it “horrific.”

The President, who was in Japan, said the shooting was caused by a “mental health problem,” not an issue with gun laws.

“Mental health is your problem here,” Trump said, noting that “based on preliminary reports” the shooter was “a very deranged individual.”

“This isn’t a guns situation,” Trump said. “This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event.”

Honestly, this is not an either/or.


If we could get back to the armed forces for a minute:

In many of the cases you read about where a member of the Armed Forces has been dishonorably discharged, there is some form of mental illness. If the service member didn’t already have that illness, they developed PTSD or an addiction.

Now, I am not excusing reprehensible actions, but there are a whole host of cases that highlight the gray area here. The stories of Highfill, Holway, and even Bergdahl beg the question: If someone fights in a war for a country, should they not deserve a certain level of care? Part of honoring our veterans should include taking care of them once they return home.

Note (November 12, 2017): The post was updated to include information about the soldiers who searched for Bergdahl.

Works Cited

“18 U.S. Code § 922 – Unlawful acts.” Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. Web. Retrived 10 Nov 2017. <https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/922>.

Andone, Dakin, Valencia, Nick and Yan, Holly. “Bowe Bergdahl gets dishonorable discharge, avoids prison time.” CNN. 4 Nov 2017. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/03/politics/bowe-bergdahl-sentenced/index.html>.

Browne, Ryan, Perez, Evan and Prokupecz, Shimon. “What we know about Texas church shooting suspect Devin Patrick Kelley.” CNN. 6 Nov 2017. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/05/us/devin-kelly-texas-church-shooting-suspect/index.html>.

Cloud, David S. and Lauter, David. “Man identified as Texas shooter was court-martialed for assault on his spouse and child.” The Los Angeles Times. 5 Nov 2017. Web. <http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-pol-essential-washington-updates-alleged-texas-shooter-was-court-1509937194-htmlstory.html>.

CNN Library. “Bowe Bergdahl Fast Facts.” CNN. 7 Nov 2017. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/19/us/bowe-bergdahl-fast-facts/index.html>.

“Dishonorable Discharge.” Legal Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 10 Nov 2017. <https://legaldictionary.net/dishonorable-discharge/>.

“Dishonorable Discharge | Definition of Dishonorable Discharge by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster. Web. Retrieved 10 Nov 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dishonorable%20discharge>.

Ducharme, Jamie. “Bowe Bergdahl Was Just Dishonorably Discharged. What’s That?” Time. 3 Nov 2017. Web. Retrieved 10 Nov 2017. <http://time.com/5009192/what-is-dishonorable-discharge-bowe-bergdahl/>.

Hanna, Jason and Yan, Holly. “Sutherland Springs church shooting: What we know.” CNN. 7 Nov. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/05/us/texas-church-shooting-what-we-know/>.

Hirby, J. “Reasons For A Dishonorable Discharge.” The Law Dictionary. <http://thelawdictionary.org/article/reasons-for-a-dishonorable-discharge/>.

“History of Other Than Honorable Discharges.” U.S. Veterans Lighthouse. 19 Nov 2015. Weblog. Retrieved 10 Nov 2017. <https://otherthanhonorabledischarge.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/history-of-other-than-honorable-discharges/>.

Lawrence, Quil and Peñaloza, Marisa. “Other-Than-Honorable Discharge Burdens Like A Scarlet Letter.” NPR. 9 Dec 2013. Web. Retrieved 10 Nov 2017. <https://www.npr.org/2013/12/09/249342610/other-than-honorable-discharge-burdens-like-a-scarlet-letter>.

McLean, Liz. “What You Need To Know About Other-Than-Honorable Discharge.” G.I. Jobs. 25 Nov 2015. Weblog. Retrieved 10 Nov 2017. <http://www.gijobs.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-other-than-honorable-discharge/>.

Various. “Gun Control Act of 1968.” Wikipedia. Last Updated 25 Oct 2017. Web. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_Control_Act_of_1968#Prohibited_persons>.

Willingham, AJ. “Church shooter’s history puts a spotlight on Texas gun laws.” CNN. 7 Nov 2017. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/06/health/texas-gun-laws-devin-kelley-court-martial-trnd/index.html>.


10 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #87 — ‘Dishonorable Discharge’

    1. Indeed. The decision to make that deal to bring Bergdahl home was always controversial. The troops who went to search for him did so because he was one of their countrymen and they went without food and water for longer than they should have. He broke down and apologized for the trouble he cause, but that won’t bring them back.

      In the future, I would like to see a better mental health program in the United States. The onus shouldn’t necessarily be on the military to weed out the mentally ill, but we need a better program to help people before they join the military and for other purposes. There also needs to be a focus on rehabilitation in many cases.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed. Our service members and veterans have earned that and so much more.

        Mental health issues is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

        It is inexcusable. I live in New York City where veterans and non-veterans with mental issues can be seen sleeping on a sidewalk subway grating or the sidewalk in the corner just blocks away from City Hall.

        Our re-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio talked a few years back about relocating the homeless, mentally ill and all to an empty hospital campus (out of sight).

        How does that solve the problem? Shelving the issues rather than dealing with them only makes matters worse.

        NYC tried that years ago and it was a nightmare for the mentally ill and their families…and a crime that has tarnished our history.

        We must deal with this.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, I wasn’t aware New York City had that kind of a program. That’s terrible.

          Developing an actual mental health program would be a worthwhile investment. Many people who are homeless suffer from mental illnesses. If they could be helped, most would be able to seek gainful employment and contribute to society. They should also be programs to help the homeless in general.

          And yes, our vets are owed a huge debt, especially when they fight in wars. Many of them come back damaged. If they aren’t physically injured, they will likely suffer from PTSD from witnessing all the death and destruction. While they can’t be forced to seek treatment, they need to be encouraged to do so.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. I don’t have an answer. I do have an opinion as an Army wife and mother, and as a mental health professional. Anyone that deserts for any reason frankly deserves a dishonorable regardless of any underlying mental illness. While the VA may have full mental hospitals and a waiting list, active duty hospitals do NOT.
    There is still a stigma attached to any disorder mentally though and the majority of active duty see that requesting assistance for PTSD or depression (for example) will affect their service. To have a red flag on their service record for mental illness will hold certain categories from advancement or even duty stations, so active duty rarely go to the mental health providers for assistance. Instead they “tough it out”.
    The screening process for enlistment is quite thorough in weeding out those with mental illness, and quite poor at screening out those with “power issues”. The screening is even tighter for officers. At every post is a mental health provider of some sort. Some in country (in a war situation) may only be mental health screeners but they are highly trained to assist the men and women that are starting to crack under the pressure. ALL active duty personnel have access and they choose whether or not to use them.
    Mental health treatment is, by Federal law, entirely optional to the person with the problem. There is one means only to force a person into treatment of any kind and it takes three physicians signing off on a safety form..then you must go to court and the judge determines whether or not to send someone. THEN it is for 3 days only. As I said, I have no answer for how the armed services should deal with mental illness. I do have a gun response. Create and implement “common sense” gun laws and make it mandatory for mental health professionals to disclose information to a federal database on their patients. As it is, we can ONLY disclose under penalty of imprisonment any identifiable information on a patient that is an immediate danger to himself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand there will be no easy answers, but we need to build on some of the good protocols you’ve described. While we should have procedures in place to protect the rights of the mentally ill, we need to get rid of the stigma so people will be more comfortable seeking help when they need it. And that help needs to be available to more people.

      I agree with you on gun control. In additions to laws about distribution and background checks, there need to be laws about gun safety. Beyond that, whoever failed to process the church shooter’s information should be strictly disciplined and fired.


      The screening process for enlistment is quite thorough in weeding out those with mental illness, and quite poor at screening out those with “power issues”.

      Yes, I wonder if there should be an extra layer to weed out bad characters. Would that be possible?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, that is debatable. The mental health testing covers all diagnoses..it does not cover controlling behaviors though. The very thing s that create a “good” soldier are the things that without a chain of command can go so very wrong in civilian life. The person who follows orders without thinking about the consequences will fight a battle to the death and never blink over it…that person though could be a detriment to society once they return with careful screening and counseling.
        If we could only make the services in toto understand that, they would force counseling while the soldiers are still under command. Easily done, the testing materials are already there and in place. It is NOT required though, so when the budgets for treatment get cut (and they are always first to get cut) testing and treatment get shoved aside.
        For those that are discharged for reasons other than honorable or general, the system totally fails them. They have no benefits so are thrust out into society, angry, controlling, misogynistic and a danger to others…and the services can say nothing. Records are sealed until a courts martial releases them, and even then mental issues can not be divulged. Frankly, CFR 42 needs to be repealed. That is the pesky little confidentiality clause that ties mental health professionals hands. But, mentioning such a thing brings about nationwide squawks of “that’s private!” or “that’s discriminatory”. As it stands now a patient has to say “I am going to kill myself by” and must give the means before we can alert anyone..usually the police. Or they have to say “I am going to kill a bunch of total strangers by” and again, give the means. Now, even crazy people know enough not to say “I am going to kill aunt suze with an uzi on christmas day”. Then the three docs and a judge have to go through the rigmarole of commitment to change anything. Is it any wonder that psychiatrists, counselors and psychologists are the top three burn out professions?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Frankly, CFR 42 needs to be repealed. That is the pesky little confidentiality clause that ties mental health professionals hands. But, mentioning such a thing brings about nationwide squawks of “that’s private!” or “that’s discriminatory”.

          You can count me among those people who would err on the side of privacy. However, there needs to be a discussion of how we can better balance privacy concerns with personal safety and wellbeing.

          Admittedly, I need to do more research on the subject, but your comments have pretty informative.


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