The history of non-Honorable discharges go back to the Revolutionary war and is founded in racism and discrimination against homosexuals.
On March 11, 1778, the first Dishonorable discharge was given by George Washington who approved the Dishonorable discharge of Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin who had been found guilty of sodomy and perjury. This seems hypocritical of Washington who a month earlier had brought in a homosexual German general to train the new American Army in the latest military tactics and drills. The general, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730–94) had also recently escaped Germany where he was threatened with prosecution for homosexuality. Despite all of this, there never was an investigation of Steuben and he received a Congressional pension after the war.
In 1916, the United States began issuing Blue discharges (also known as a “blue ticket”) as a form of administrative military discharge . It was neither honorable nor dishonorable and became the discharge of choice for World War I commanders seeking court martial and remove homosexual service members from the ranks.
With the mass mobilization and deployment of troops for operations in World War II, it became impractical to convene court martial boards for homosexual conduct offenses. Commanders instead issued Blue discharges directly to homosexual personnel. The Blue discharge was also issued disproportionately to African Americans. Of the 48,603 Blue discharges issued by the Army between 1 December 1941, and 30 June 1945, 10,806 were issued to African Americans, 22.23% of all Blue discharges at a time when African Americans constituted 6.5% of the Army.
Blue discharge holders faced difficulties in civilian life because the blue discharge carried with it a negative association. The Veterans Administration denied Blue discharge veterans the benefits of the G.I. Bill as a general policy. In 1944, a policy directive ordered that homosexuals were to be committed to military hospitals, examined by psychiatrists and discharged under Regulation 615-360, section 8.
Congress had originally expressed concern about possible misuse of the Blue discharge when it began work on the G.I. Bill in 1944. In discussions about the legislation’s details, the American Legion insisted on a specific provision to provide benefits to veterans discharged under any circumstance other than dishonorable. The Legion believed a large number of veterans had been given Blue and other less-than-honorable discharges for reasons that it considered unreasonable or trivial. In testimony before the United States Senate, Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs strongly opposed this provision on the grounds that it would undermine morale and remove any incentive to maintain a good service record. Senator Bennett Champ Clark, a sponsor of the bill, dismissed his concerns, calling them “some of the most stupid, short-sighted objections which could be raised”. Clark went on to say:
“The Army is giving blue discharges, namely discharges without honor, to those who have had no fault other than they have not shown sufficient aptitude for military service. I say that when the government drafts a man from civil life and puts him in the military service … and, thereafter, because the man does not show sufficient aptitude gives him a blue discharge, or a discharge without honor, that fact should not be permitted to prevent the man from receiving the benefits to which soldiers are generally entitled.”
The G.I. Bill also provided for discharge review boards to review an appeal of any discharge other than dishonorable. From 1945 until early 1947, these boards routinely upgraded to honorable the Blue discharges of homosexual service members who had not committed any known sex acts during their military service. About one-third of all Blue discharges reviewed were upgraded to Honorable.
In response to reports about the disparate treatment of Blue-ticket veterans, the House Committee of Military Affairs appointed a special committee to review the Veterans Administration’s procedures. The committee, headed by Rep. Carl T. Durham (D-NC), issued its report officially called “Investigations of the National War Effort”, commonly known as “Blue Discharges”, on 30 January 1946. The committee expressed its amazement that anyone with a Blue discharge would risk further stigmatization by speaking out against the discrimination:
It should be borne in mind that even a moderate amount of complaint in a matter of this sort is significant. For a person to make such a complaint in his own case implies that he feels a sense of injustice so great that he is willing to risk publicizing the stigma of having been discharged from the Army under circumstances which savor of disgrace. For each complainant there are many more who feel the same sense of injustice but prefer to bury their hurt in as much oblivion as possible.
In examining case histories of blue-discharge veterans, the committee found that “the procedure lends itself to dismissals based on prejudice and antagonism”. Further, the committee found that the effects of a blue discharge “differ little from those of a dishonorable discharge…the discharged man finds it difficult to get or keep a job. The suspicion of society is aroused against him, all the worse in some ways for carrying an atmosphere of mystery.” The report said that “nothing could more clearly prove the anomalous and illogical and disingenuous nature of the blue discharge than this policy of the Veterans Administration”. The committee called the system for dealing with blue-ticket veterans “a squeeze play between the War Department and the Veterans Administration.”
To reform the discharge system the committee recommended:
- Automatic review for all blue discharges
- That the Army be required to demonstrate that it made multiple attempts to rehabilitate the service member before issuing a blue discharge
- The right to counsel for service members being given a blue discharge, either provided by the military or private counsel
- Copies of procedural regulations regarding the blue discharge process be provided upon request
- That any discharge that did not specify the quality of service state plainly that it is not dishonorable
The committee also recommended changing the discharge system to four classifications: honorable and dishonorable, with no change in their definitions; “under honorable conditions” to replace the blue discharge; and general, to cover separation for misconduct.
Despite the Committee’s report, the VA continued to discriminate against homosexual blue-tickets, renewing its 1945 directive in 1946 and again in 1949. Blue discharges were discontinued as of 1 July 1947, and two new headings, general and undesirable, took their place. A General discharge was considered to be under honorable conditions—distinct from an “honorable discharge”—and an undesirable discharge was under conditions other than honorable—distinct from a “dishonorable discharge”. At the same time, the Army changed its regulations to ensure that gay and lesbian service members would not qualify for general discharges. Those found guilty of engaging in homosexual conduct still received dishonorable discharges, while those identified as homosexuals but not to have committed any homosexual acts now received undesirable discharges.
Blue discharges were discontinued in May 1947 and replaced with two new headings, “General” and “Undesirable”. A General discharge was considered to be “Under Honorable Conditions though distinct from an Honorable discharge. An Undesirable discharge was under conditions “Other Than Honorable, yet distinct from a “dishonorable discharge”. The Army also changed its regulations to ensure that homosexuals would not qualify for general discharges. Under this system, a servicemember found to be homosexual but who had not committed any homosexual acts while in service received an undesirable discharge. Those found guilty of engaging in homosexual conduct were dishonorably discharged.
By the 1970s, a service member who had not committed any homosexual acts would tend to receive a General discharge, while those found to have engaged in homosexual sex tended to receive Undesirable or “Other Than Honorable” discharges. Gay service members continued to receive a disproportionate percentage of the Undesirable discharges issued. This was the status quo until replaced in 1993 by the policy commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.
It has been suggested that the large gay populations in port cities like San Francisco , Chicago, and New York City are in part the result of the Blue discharge. The theory asserts that many gay Blue-ticket veterans from smaller urban or rural areas who felt they were unable to return to their home communities because of the shame associated with their discharges.
Despite the fact that gay Vietnam veterans received a disproportionate percentage of the Undesirable discharges issued it is estimated that about one-third of the 250,000 Other Than Honorable discharges issued to Vietnam era veterans may have been PTSD related.
In 2015, the total number of living veterans with an OTH discharge has reached 1.2 million people. Army discharges for misconduct have risen 25% since 2009, mirroring the percentage of wounded veterans. OTH discharges at eight Army posts that house the most combat units have rise 67% since 2009.