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Minor infractions in uniform can keep vets on the street and away from VA

HINES, IL - MAY 30:  A sign marks the entrance to the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital on May 30, 2014 in Hines, Illinois. Hines,  which is located in suburban Chicago, has been linked to allegations that administrators kept secret waiting lists at Veterans Administration hospitals so hospital executives could collect bonuses linked to meeting standards for rapid treatment. Today, as the scandal continued to grow, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized in public and then resigned from his post. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Scott Olson/Getty Images
A veteran's access to benefits is determined by his or her discharge status--which follows them for life.

Hundreds of thousands of service members leave the military each year — some with a black mark on their records that'll prevent them from getting the benefits veterans usually receive. 

According to data obtained by KPCC, about 207,000 military members were discharged in the last fiscal year, nearly 9 percent of them under conditions that didn't meet the standard for "honorable discharge."

Status appeals rising in LA

For those with "bad paper," as it's called, life can be difficult. Discharge status determine's a veteran's access to benefits provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found veterans who aren't honorably discharged are seven times more likely to be homeless. 

In Los Angeles, veterans are increasingly starting to appeal their discharges, according to Nicole Perez, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation. 

Before, she said, veterans largely didn't know they could change their status — many who weren't honorably discharged didn't even consider themselves veterans. 

"In the last couple of years, though, it's exploded," she said. 

Bad paper can stem from a wide variety of misconduct:

  • Administrative discharges, like "general" and "other than honorable" are either charges unique to the military (like "insubordination") or things that would qualify as low-level misdemeanors in a criminal court. On the high end of the spectrum, a veteran with this type of discharge has access to V.A. benefits like health care, but not to the G.I. Bill and other educational opportunities. On the lower end, they may also be ineligible for housing benefits.
  • Punitive discharges, like "bad conduct" and "dishonorable" discharges, are generally criminal, and can be awarded for anything from murder, rape, and arson, to treason or cowardice before the enemy.

The process for administrative versus punitive discharges is vastly different.
Punitive discharges can only be awarded by courts martial — that means conviction by the military court — and can accompany lengthy prison sentences. Like a civilian criminal trial, the accused has access to a lawyer and the burden of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt."

But most misconduct in the military isn't handled by a court, but by commanding officers. 

Infractions can cost vets 'honorable' exit

Typical administrative infractions could be anything from insulting a senior officer, to getting into a fistfight, or testing positive for narcotics on a urinalysis.

The burden of proof for an administrative "non-judicial" proceeding is based on a "preponderance of evidence" — meaning if 51 percent of the evidence points to your guilt, that's enough.

While the burden of proof is much lower than for a criminal court proceeding, the amount and types of punishment that can be awarded are also less harsh. An administrative punishment could include "reduction in rank" (i.e. a demotion) and withholding half of a person's pay for two months.

If the offender is a low-ranking enlistee and receives administrative punishment several times in his or her first enlistment contract, a commanding officer may decide that the enlistee just isn't cut out for military service. Often, getting kicked out this way results in a "general" or "other than honorable" discharge. 

According to data from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the discharges from the 2014-2015 fiscal year break down as:

  • Honorable: 78.29 percent
  • General – Under Honorable Conditions: 6.36 percent
  • Under Other Than Honorable Conditions: 2.09 percent
  • Bad Conduct: 0.49 percent
  • Dishonorable: 0.07 percent

The remaining were either “uncharacterized” or unknown due to data entry error.