Veteran saluting the flag. Credit: Sean Locke Photography / Shutterstock

Black veterans were disproportionately likely to leave military service with a less than honorable discharge, according to a Tuesday report by the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center which found racial disparities in separation statistics between 2015 and 2020.

The group used Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain more than one million separation documents from four of the five military branches: the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. They found that Black veterans were about twice as likely to receive a General Discharge and 1.5 times as likely to leave with an Other Than Honorable than their white colleagues.

In a press release, Alden Pinkham, a Singer Fellow at Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, called on Congress and the Defense Department to correct racial disparities. 

“The military’s administrative separation process is highly discretionary, making it a system where bias has the potential to thrive, undetected,” Pinham said. “The fact that Black service members receive General and Other Than Honorable discharges at such unexpectedly high rates is alarming.”

For military veterans, the type of discharge that appears on their DD-214 separation documents is more than a trivial distinction. Prospective employers routinely request the paperwork during hiring processes and take note of separations not listed as honorable.

Discharge types also impact what benefits are available to a veteran once they have returned to civilian life. For instance, in order to take advantage of the Montgomery GI Bill or Post-9/11 GI Bill educational assistance programs, a vet must have received an honorable discharge. 

While most veterans receive honorable discharges at the end of their service, servicemembers can be assigned general discharges by their chains of command for receiving “nonjudicial punishment” for conduct in service. 

The report notes that military officials have discretion over what conduct justifies something other than an honorable discharge during administrative separations. Officials only assign punitive discharges, like dishonorable or bad conduct separations, following a court martial trial for misconduct that might be considered a criminal offense. 

The report’s authors called on the Defense Department to study racial disparities in its members’ separations since World War II and better track the details of the disciplinary actions which lead to less than honorable separations. 

Meanwhile, they recommended that the Department of Veteran Affairs revoke any rules that prevent veterans from accessing benefits unless such rules are required by law while calling on Congress to pass legislation to assist vets who were unfairly denied benefits. 

“The devastating legacy of bad paper discharges — proliferating in World War II through the present day, has stripped generations of Black troops of the social and economic benefits of military service,” Richard Brookshire, co-founder of Black Veterans Project. “CVLC’s report contributes to a broader critical analysis of the military’s failure to contend with the issue of anti-Black discrimination across its ranks and is a damning indictment of how far we’ve come post-integration.”