Military Discharge Policies and Practices Result in Wide Disparities:

Congressional Review Is Needed

FPCD-80-13: Published: Jan 15, 1980. Publicly Released: Jan 15, 1980.

Additional Materials:


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

The military departments characterize the service of each member by the type of discharge imposed when the individual is separated. The Department of Defense adopted the current three-tiered system of discharges in 1947, but each service has developed and implemented its own set of philosophies and practices and individual commanders within each service approach the question of characterizing a member's service differently. As a result, former service members with similar service records have received different types of discharges, and large disparities exist in the frequency with which the individual services assign less than desirable discharges.

GAO has conservatively estimated the cost of pay and allowances paid to members being processed for separation for adverse reasons at $55 million a year. The figure would be much higher if recruiting and training costs lost due to early separation were included. Most of those receiving less than fully honorable discharges are young people involuntarily separated before the end of their initial enlistment under what are referred to as adverse administrative discharges. These discharges are seldom based on serious criminal wrongdoing, and they are often accepted because the individuals affected want to leave the service and may not realize the potential long-term consequences of their decision. On the other hand, issuing honorable discharges to individuals separated before the end of their enlistment for reasons indicating lack of success is a common practice and erodes the integrity of the characterization system. Because the current system unfairly stigmatizes some individuals and devalues the successful service records of others, GAO believes that awarding uncharacterized discharges to members separated during an initial period would have considerable merit.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: The Congress should hold hearings to obtain the views of interested parties and decide the future of the services' characterization and separation systems.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should insure that all individuals being separated for adverse reasons, and those who may receive general discharges or discharges under other than honorable conditions, be given the option of a hearing before an administrative discharge board. The board should be empowered to establish, on the basis of the member's service record, whether prescribed procedures were followed in counseling and other rehabilitative efforts. The Secretary should also (1) insure that the upgrade criteria for discharge review boards are applied fairly and consistently among the services, and (2) establish uniform criteria for the boards for correction of military or naval records.

    Agency Affected:


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 26, 2018

Sep 5, 2018

Jul 18, 2018

Jul 16, 2018

Jun 27, 2018

May 31, 2018

May 17, 2018

Apr 18, 2018

Apr 12, 2018

Looking for more? Browse all our products here