VA expands benefits options for vets with other-than-honorable status

by Vern Evans

More veterans with other-than-honorable discharges will be able to access federal benefits under new rules announced by the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday.

Officials said the rules are designed to ensure that troops booted for homosexuality, undiagnosed mental health issues or other questionable reasons can access needed care and are recognized for their service.

Over the last decade, about 57,000 individuals in those categories have applied for and received VA benefits despite their discharge status.

“Too often, former service members believe that they cannot come to VA due to their discharge status, but the truth is that many former service members who were not discharged honorably can get health care or benefits from VA,” Under Secretary for Benefits Josh Jacobs said in a statement. “When you apply, we will do everything in our power to get to yes.”

The new changes drop the department’s regulatory bar on benefits for individuals dismissed for “homosexual acts involving aggravating circumstances or other factors affecting the performance of duty.” The move also creates a new “compelling circumstances exception” for some former troops.

VA officials had previously amended rules to allow many service members discharged under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law to access benefits. The latest move continues that work, further expanding the number of individuals who may be able to qualify for benefits.

The “compelling circumstances” language allows VA staffers to consider a host of issues surrounding veterans’ status before determining benefits eligibility, including length and character of service, mental and cognitive impairment, combat-related hardship, and sexual abuse or discrimination accusations.

Officials said the updated process “creates a new path for VA to provide benefits and services to deserving former service members.”

In addition to those changes, veterans with other-than-honorable discharges who were previously denied benefits can reapply to see if they now qualify. Veterans with dishonorable discharges, or those convicted of desertion or mutiny, still do not qualify for any benefits.

VA leadership did not say how many individuals they expect could be eligible for new benefits under the changes. About 10,000 individuals with bad conduct discharges applied for benefits in 2023. The department has said about 75% of applications from those individuals over the last decade have resulted in some level of benefits.

More information on the changes and how to apply for benefits is available on the VA website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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