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I started receiving calls and emails within 24 hours of the Sep 15th Navy Yard shooting incident.  Aaron Alexis, a Navy Reserve veteran with a sawed-off shotgun, went on a rampage on a secure military installation in a building with controlled access.  The media wanted to know how someone with Alexis’ history of civil disturbances and inappropriate gun use could have received an Honorable discharge and what could his employer have done differently while conducting the background checks that led to his attaining a security clearance.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) interviewed me and posted an article about types of discharges.  I received many inquiries after the article was published from HR professionals who wanted a copy of paper I wrote on how to read and interpret a DD-214 (Transcript of Military Service).  Almost every person who requested the paper indicated they wanted some way to ensure that they were not taking a risk by hiring a veteran.  They felt that if they could have access to the veteran’s DD-214, they would find blemishes on his employment record, and then could use that info to screen out those who may be a risk.

It churns my stomach to know there is still a perception that veterans are potentially dangerous and unstable until proven otherwise.  I find this perception disheartening for several reasons:

First, the DD-214 is essentially an employment record.  Let’s imagine you are considering hiring John Smith, a non-military candidate who previously worked for Cisco, Dell and EDS.  If you contacted those 3 employers to ask for John Smith’s employment record, you would be lucky to obtain much more than his dates of employment.  Very few employers are willing to provide the employment record of a former employee, much less the reason that person no longer works for that company.  If John Smith was chronically late to work, verbally abusive to his co-workers, and/or had two DUI arrests from his activities off-the-clock, his former employer might have used those as reasons for dismissal, but you, the gaining employer, would not have easy access to that info, unless any of those activities resulted in an arrest and/or a conviction or made the newspaper.

Bottom line:  You are taking a risk with any person you hire, no matter how unblemished they seem on paper.  That a candidate happened to have served in the military indicates no greater risk.

Second, that employment record (the DD-214) is not considered public information.  You, as an employer, do not have a right to see the information.  You can ask to see it as proof of military service, but you cannot obtain a copy of it without the written permission of the veteran.  As I describe in detail in the paper, there are several versions of the DD-214, some of which contain more personal information than others.  Copy-4 of the DD-214 has the most detail, including the characterization of service (i.e., the type of discharge received) and a code that reveals the reason for the discharge.  That reason could be as simple as the fact that the service member reached the end of his contract.  It could be as personal as a medical or financial reason.  It could also reveal a person’s sexual orientation.  The codes exist for internal use by the military.  Certain discharge codes prevent a veteran from re-entering military service.

Bottom line:  You are opening up Pandora ’s Box by insisting on knowing the type of discharge and the reason for the discharge.  You do not know the circumstances that led to the discharge type or the code.  For you to pry into those circumstances could cause you to become aware of information that is personal and may have no bearing on suitability for a civilian job.  For example, the person might have received an honorable discharge in 2008 with a code that indicates she was discharged for being gay.  You now know something personal about that candidate that would otherwise be unlawful for you to have asked about directly.  I know of a female veteran who was discharged with an “Other than Honorable” characterization for punching her supervisor in the face.  What would be hard to deduce from a glance at a DD-214 was that the reason she punched him in the face is that, in that moment, he was trying to sexually assault her.

Third, that discharge code reflects a moment in time in someone’s work history.  75% of the military is made up of enlisted members, and the majority of them join the service right out of high school.  Young kids, 17-20 years old, away from home for the first time, have a knack for doing foolish things.  In the military, some of those foolish things could get you kicked out with an Other Than Honorable Discharge.  Does that mean that 6 years later, after maturity sets in and the former service member has completed college and got his life back on track, that his discharge type and reason should be used against him when he is pursuing civilian employment?

The Washington Post recently ran a story about a woman who was originally discharged from the Navy in 2010 under “Other than Honorable” conditions.  The characterization stemmed from a failed drug test, which was later determined to have resulted from proper usage of a prescribed medication.  The military has rules on disclosing prescription drug use PRIOR to submitting to a urinalysis.   She was eventually able to get the discharged upgraded to “Honorable” fifteen months later.  What might have happened if she had been trying to find employment after the military and the DD-214 revealed an “Other than Honorable” discharge for drug use?


Bottom line:  the discharge type is designed for government use to determine the types of benefits (medical, education, housing, etc.) someone is entitled to after service.  The Honorable Discharge makes a veteran eligible for all benefits, whereas the other types of discharges result in eligibility for few or none of the benefits.  It can be a misleading document in the hands of someone who does not understand military service or who believes that they can mitigate employment risk by using it to eliminate from consideration those who have anything less than an Honorable discharge.

My final thoughts:

  1.  It is acceptable to ask to see copy 1 of the DD-214 to confirm dates served in the military
  2. If you insist on seeing copy 4 of the DD-214 (the copy that shows the type of discharge and the release code) you had better have a good reason for asking for it (e.g., you are hiring for a government contract and the contract requires any veterans hired to have an Honorable Discharge for purposes of getting a security clearance).  Keep in mind – Aaron Alexis received an Honorable discharge and had a security clearance.  The DD-214 is not a Rosetta Stone that reveals all you need to know about someone’s background in order to make a hiring decision.  If the person you want to hire is the best candidate for the job and passes your standard background checks, then you have made the best decision you could have given the info to which you had access.