For two out of my three years at Campbell Law, I had the honor to serve as one of the Managing Partners for the Student Pro Bono Council’s Veterans Project (“Project”). Since 2018 the Project did not have an established supervising attorney or community partner. Thus, unfortunately, there was no means to provide pro bono experiences and services for veterans and law students at Campbell Law. Outside of volunteering at one-time events loosely tied to the veteran community, the Project was left without substantive pro bono opportunities for students to participate in.
However, I am thrilled that as I graduate and leave my role as the Managing Partner for the Project, we now have a Supervising Attorney and multiple Community Partners with a dedicated mission of providing pro bono legal representation regarding discharge upgrades for veterans.
To find a community partner that would facilitate more substantive student pro bono activities tied directly to the veteran community, the Project and I began reaching out to other law schools and pro bono groups about different options. The overwhelming majority of responses were a major need for pro bono services related to Discharge Upgrades.
WHAT IS A DISCHARGE?
A discharge occurs when a service member retires, completes their service contract, or is separated from the military due to some form of misconduct or medical reason. There are various levels of discharges that serve as a characterization of a veteran’s service. Discharges are categorized as either administrative or punitive. Administrative separations include Honorable, General (Under Honorable Conditions (UHC)), Under Other Than Honorable Conditions (UOTHC), and Uncharacterized. The ideal discharge is Honorable, and the majority of servicemembers are honorably discharged. Punitive discharges include Bad Conduct and Dishonorable.
WHAT ARE DISCHARGE UPGRADES?
Discharge Upgrades are a process for veterans to “upgrade” their discharge from the military. Why might a veteran want or need a discharge upgrade? Any discharge on other-than-honorable conditions usually means that the veteran will not have access to all the benefits, such as the GI Bill and Veterans Affairs benefits, afforded to honorably discharged veterans. Additionally, a discharge below honorable can and likely will detrimentally impact future employment opportunities. Veterans want their discharge upgraded because they feel that it is grossly unfair that they are denied benefits after serving their country. Some veterans want their discharge changed even if they remain ineligible for many benefits because they feel it dishonors the service they provided to their country. Other veterans want their discharge upgraded for employment reasons.
What is the Process for Requesting a Discharge Upgrade?
Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges can request a discharge upgrade through two separate administrative review boards: Discharge Review Boards and Boards for the Correction of Military Records. Each branch of service has its own Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military Records (with the Navy and Marine Corps utilizing a singular board for both sailors and Marines).
Discharge Review Boards
Discharge Review Boards (DRB) can upgrade the character of discharge and change the reason for discharge on the DD-214 (the official separation document for veterans). Veterans may request a discharge upgrade through a DRB up to fifteen years after discharge. The hearing process is done via a paper review of an applicant’s submissions. A personal appearance hearing may be requested. If denied an upgrade by the DRB, veterans may appeal the decision to the Board for Correction of Military Records.
Board for Correction of Military Records
The records correction board is the only avenue available for veterans seeking an upgrade to a discharge of more than fifteen years old. Boards for Correction of Military Records have more flexible powers than DRBs. Boards for Correction of Military Records can upgrade any character of discharge and change any reason for discharge. They can also change reenlistment codes, change the date of discharge, remove mistakes in a veteran’s record, and either add or remove a note of medical retirement.
Discharge Appeal Review Board
Now, as of April 7, 2021, after the enactment by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, any veteran separated on or after December 20, 2019, who has exhausted all available appeals with the appropriate Service Discharge Review Board (DRB) and Board for Correction of Military/Naval Records (BCM), may apply to the Discharge Appeal Review Board (DARB). The DARB will provide a final review of discharge or dismissal characterization upgrade requests when petitioners have exhausted all available administrative remedies. The DARB is excellent news as now there is a third means for upgrading discharges that did not exist before this year.
North Carolina Law Schools Actively Assist with Discharge Upgrades
Both UNC and Wake Forest law schools have veterans legal clinics that provide pro bono discharge upgrade services for veterans. Campbell’s Veterans Project was inspired by and followed in the footsteps of both UNC and Wake Forest’s clinics. I want to thank Professor John Brooker of the UNC School of Law Military and Veterans Clinic and Eleanor Morales of the Wake Forest Law Veterans Legal Clinic for their time and advice. Professor Booker connected Campbell’s Veterans Project with an attorney willing to serve as our Community Partner and Supervising Attorney, Nate Ulmer.
COMMUNITY PARTNERS & SUPERVISING ATTORNEY
Attorney Nate Ulmer is originally from Raleigh and is licensed in North Carolina. Nate attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Campbell Law School. Nate served as a Marine Corps officer following Campbell Law before joining Atlantic Coast Law in Wilmington, NC.
Mr. Ulmer’s practice primarily focuses on representing military clients. He approached the Project with one client this past Fall 2020 semester. The Project submitted that the first client’s Discharge Upgrade packet in January is awaiting the DRB decision. Mr. Ulmer also provided the Project with a second client this past spring semester, and the Project is in the final stages of submitting his application to the DRB.
The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program (TVC) was created by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to provide pro bono legal representation for veterans dealing with discharge upgrades and VA benefits appeals. The TVC Discharge Upgrade Program consists of the following: (1) Training provided by TVC, (2) Cases/clients provided by TVC, (3) Experienced mentor, but not a supervising attorney, (4) time commitment of about 20-40 hours, (5) students responsible for maintaining contact with the veteran, obtaining additional evidence, and writing a brief in support of the application. TVC has provided the Project with two additional discharge upgrade cases this past spring semester that is continuing to be worked on by the Project. I want to thank TVC and Danica Gonzalves for all the training and advice on getting our Project started.
What’s the Process Look Like for a Discharge Upgrade
The process for requesting a discharge upgrade is standardized across the services. The process involves (1) completing a form, (2) providing records, and (3) submission of a letter brief outlining why the discharge upgrade is necessary. There are two forms: DD-293 and DD-149. The DD-293 is used to request a DRB, and the DD-149 goes to a BCM.
The board will make an initial decision on what’s in the written application materials and military records within approximately five to ten months. This is called a “paper review.” If the paper review is unfavorable, a veteran can appeal the written decision to an oral hearing before the board. Additionally, a veteran can waive the ‘paper decision’ and proceed directly to an oral hearing if she/he so chooses. Depending on the branch of service, the oral hearings can be held remotely or in person. In-person oral hearings are generally held in the Washington, D.C. area.
- Step 1 – Request Records: If the veteran does not have all their relevant records, then the Project will need to request all of their military & medical records.
- Step 2 – Gather Supporting Evidence & Reference Letters: Gathering letters of support from colleagues; witness statements, evidence of good conduct in the military; performance reviews, etc., to be utilized as supporting exhibits. Generally, the veteran may already have this or be able to gather them easily.
- Step 3 – Write Brief – Draft the statement of material contentions outlining why the Board should upgrade the discharge. Here is where students will be the most involved.
- Submit Application Forms: Either a DD Form 293 or DD Form 149 based upon which board is applying to.
- Complete and submit application packet: complete packet will include an application form, brief, and any relevant records and exhibits.
Drafting the Brief is where students can be most involved. The time commitment for writing the brief can be split up into sections for students. The total time commitment for each case can vary from about 20-40 hours.
Conclusion: From Nothing to Pro Bono Project of the Year
Thank you to all the people that assisted the Veterans Project this past year. We went from having no supervising attorney, no community partners, no student volunteers, and no actual pro bono service at the beginning of this past school year to the current fully approved pro bono project with multiple community partners and a clear mission and pro bono service to provide to the veteran community. I especially want to thank Attorney Nate Ulmer and my co-Managing Partner Camille Wrotenbery for all of their assistance this past year; without them, this Project would not be possible.
The Veterans Project ended the school year by winning the Outstanding Project in Pro Bono and Public Service award. The award is given annually to one project within the Pro Bono Council to recognize excellence in providing pro bono services to clients and getting law students involved in pro bono work. Thank you to everyone who has donated their time and work to the Veterans Project over the years at Campbell Law. I know the Project will continue to flourish and look forward to assisting in the future as an additional supervising attorney.
To contact the Veterans Project, please contact Attorney Nate Ulmer at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Campbell Law’s Pro Bono Projects, see here. For more information or to get involved, please contact Assistant Dean of Student Life & Pro Bono Opportunities Evin L. Grant at email@example.com.