Military Discharge Policies and Practices Result in Wide Disparities

Congressional Review Is Needed Gao ID: FPCD-80-13 January 15, 1980

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.


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