How Does Mental Health Affect My Discharge Upgrade Application?
The Discharge Review Boards and Boards of Correction are supposed to be kind to people who have mental health conditions, such as PTSD, that can be traced back to their time in service. However, the rules about this are not very clear. The rules were also very recently revised, so it is difficult to know how the Review Boards might adjust their practices moving forward based on the rule changes. If you struggled with a mental health condition during your service, there are some things you can do to help you organize your application so that it is more likely to be granted.
Two important documents: the Hagel Memo and the Kurta Memo
In recent years, two legal memos from the Department of Defense created rules to make it easier for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) to get discharge upgrades. They are the Hagel Memo and the Kurta Memo (named after the Pentagon officials who wrote them). Each memo created special rules that tell the review boards how to decide applications from veterans who have histories of mental health conditions.
Also, these memos created rules to allow veterans who have previously applied for discharge upgrades to re-apply now so the boards can decide those application using the new, more favorable rules. Even if you applied for a discharge upgrade before and were denied, you can now apply again.
Does this matter to me?
If you began struggling with a mental health condition (including PTSD, TBI, depression, anxiety, or any other condition) or experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment during your time in service, this applies to you. The boards should be more kind in looking at your discharge upgrade application. It is worth consulting with a mental health evaluator if you are not sure if you count.
How does this change my application?
If you believe that your mental health condition or experience of sexual assault may be relevant to why you were discharged (for example, you were self-medicating and were discharged due to substance abuse; or you had a flashback and were disciplined for not following orders), there are some steps you can take to make your application stronger. You should make sure to include information in your written statement about the trauma you experienced, how your mental health has been affected, and how your condition has affected your life. Below are some tips for writing your application and for submitting different kinds of evidence of your condition or experience.
Application Tips: 4 Things to Prove
1. Show that you had or have a relevant mental health condition.
If you have a diagnosis of PTSD or another mental health condition from a health care professional, that is the best evidence you can provide to support your case. However, even if you don't have an official diagnosis, you can still submit evidence that you were struggling with symptoms while in service. See below for information on what counts as this kind of evidence.
2. Show that the mental health condition began during your service.
You have evidence if you have records from the VA showing a diagnosis of service-connected PTSD, TBI, or a related condition. The boards will also consider any records by a civilian health care provider that say the condition began during your service.
Ideally, your records should say that the condition developed while you were in the military and explain what your condition was like while you were in service and shortly after. This can be difficult, especially if you were discharged a long time ago. But because the board cares about the link between the PTSD or TBI and your discharge, evidence from that time is more important to include than how you are doing now.
3. Explain how your mental health condition affected your discharge.
In other words, explain how your reason for discharge (for example, misconduct, going AWOL, or use of illegal substances) was connected to symptoms of your mental health condition (for example, you were self-medicating or experiencing a panic attack).
4. Finally, explain why your mental health condition should "mitigate," or outweigh, your discharge status.
If a veteran’s misconduct was severe, the boards may think it did not result from their mental health condition or is not excused by a mental health condition. Explain why this is not true in your situation and why your mental health condition explains and justifies your reason for discharge.
What records can I use as evidence to support my application?
You want to include and write about any evidence that you struggled with a mental health condition during your time in service and/or that you experienced sexual assault, trauma, or harassment during your service. You can get creative here—evidence can include a lot of different things.
- You should write about your mental health condition and/or traumatic experience and follow the 4 application tips above. Your written statement itself counts as evidence.You should submit your own statement even if you aren’t able to submit any of other kind of evidence.
- As discussed in the Application Tips above, you should include any medical or mental health records showing a diagnosis of PTSD or other mental health condition. Include records from both VA and civilian providers.
- If you do not have a diagnosis, or if the one you have does not explain how your symptoms affected the reason for your discharge, get an evaluation from a medical professional, preferably from someone who specializes in mental health. Social workers’ statements are helpful, but they are generally less successful than a letter from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or doctor. If possible, get a letter from a VA employee and a private doctor. Include any written evaluations with your application.
- Gather other evidence from your history that could show you have had mental health difficulties during your service—notes in other medical records, police records, etc.
- If you were sexually assaulted during your service, you can submit any records from a sexual assault forensic examination or results of tests for sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. Even if you did not report the assault at the time, you can submit other kinds of evidence, for example if you asked to transfer to a different unit, if supervisors noted changes in your performance, or if you started experiencing relationship issues or sexual problems.