In the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump said that former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was dishonorably discharged from the Navy for cocaine use. While Hunter Biden was administratively separated from the military, he could not have received a dishonorable discharge.
According to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, Hunter Biden was discharged from the Navy as the result of a failed drug test — he was found to have cocaine in his system. Biden has said that he was administratively separated, which eliminates the possibility of a dishonorable discharge.
Within the Department of the Navy — which includes the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps — there are three basic categories of discharges: Administrative Discharges, Punitive Discharges, and Clemency Discharges.
This explanation will focus on the first two as the Clemency Discharge focuses on “Vietnam Era Draft Evaders and Military Deserters,” and thus is very uncommon nowadays. The military separates each of these discharges into several categories known as the service member’s “character of discharge.”
The first of these categories is Administrative Discharges. This category includes service members who have completed their enlistment contract and those who are separated prior to the completion of their enlistment contract – for various reasons. When a service member is administratively discharged (also known as an administrative separation), they will receive a character of discharge described as “Honorable,” “General” (also termed “Under Honorable Conditions”), “Other Than Honorable” or “Entry Level Separation,” depending on the service member’s record of service. This record includes things like proficiency and conduct while serving.
When a person is said to have “served honorably,” it means that veteran’s service was characterized as “Honorable” upon their discharge from the military. This means that the service member exhibited proper military behavior and adequate performance of duty while serving in the armed forces. This is the most common type of discharge, with nearly 85 percent of service members receiving an Honorable discharge.
When a service member’s discharge is characterized as “General,” it means their service was honorable for most of their time in service but may not warrant an “Honorable” discharge. An example would be a service member who failed to meet physical fitness requirements during the final part of their time in.
When a service member’s discharge is characterized as “Other Than Honorable,” it means they were separated for a reason described in the Naval Military Personnel Manual or the Marine Corps Separation and Retirement Manual. An “Other Than Honorable” discharge can be the direct result of misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of duties.
A discharge that is initiated when a service member has not completed their initial military training is generally deemed an “Entry Level Separation.” In some circumstances, service members may be granted an “Honorable” or “Other Than Honorable” discharge at this time, but these occurrences are rare.
When a service member receives a punitive discharge as the result of a court-martial sentence, they are assigned a character of discharge described as “Bad Conduct” or “Dishonorable.”
There are two types of court-martial. A conviction from a special court-martial is similar to a misdemeanor conviction. A conviction from a general court-martial is similar to a civilian felony conviction. “Bad Conduct” discharges can result from a special or general court-martial. A “Dishonorable” discharge can only come from a general court-martial.
If a veteran disagrees with their character of discharge, they are able to contest the classification and petition to have their discharge upgraded, often based on extenuating circumstances or mental health issues that were present during their time in service.
The Department of Defense doesn’t release personnel records of service members. Unless Hunter Biden releases his own records, the public may never know what his character of discharge was. However, if Biden was in fact “administratively separated,” based on the military’s separation system, it is impossible for Hunter Biden to have received a dishonorable discharge.
Due to the sheer number of factors that affect the character of discharge, it is impossible to concisely describe all of them, but the Navy publishes their separation manual here, and the Marine Corps publishes their separation manual here. More information about Naval discharges can be found in Title 32, Subtitle A, Chapter VI, Subchapter C, part 724, Subpart A of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Other branches of the military follow similar criteria. For brevity, this article focuses on the Department of the Navy.