Getting Out of the Military: Early Separation and Discharge

Why Early Separation from Active Duty Military Service Is Rare

discharged soldier with bag standing in front of house
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A sad but true reality of military service is that many who enlist find themselves wanting out at some point in their service. Sometimes the person is disillusioned. Perhaps their recruiter lied to them, or perhaps they had "selective hearing" and only heard what they wanted to hear about the realities of joining the military. Perhaps they simply decide after basic training or job training, that they don't like the military and want out.

Seeking Early Separation from the Military

Unfortunately, there is no one easy way to get out of the military before your service is complete. While you can easily get discharged from the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP), getting discharged once you are on active duty before your active duty commitment is up is no easy task. Joining the military is not like accepting any other job. Your military service is not "at will," and you can't quit simply because you don't like it. You signed a contract, you took an oath, and you are legally (and morally) obligated to complete the terms of the contract, even if you don't like it. While "quitting" isn't an option, there are some ways you can be discharged from active duty, but they are rarely voluntary.

It's especially important to note that early separation or discharge from the military is different from military retirement and even disability or medical separations.

 A military discharge means that you are being released from your obligation to continue service in the armed forces and that you are relieved from any future military service obligations or recalls. As expected, early discharge is rare.

Military Enlistment Breach of Contract

A breach of your enlistment contract can be terms for voluntary early separation from the military, but it is very rare.

 Some people mistakenly believe that discovering dishonesty on the part of their military recruiter represents a breach of contract and is grounds for seeking separation. While dishonesty can be an unfortunate consequence of the way the military recruiting system is set up, recruiter dishonesty is not inherently a breach of contract.   

In fact, section D and block 13a of the enlistment contract states:

"I certify that I have carefully read this document. Any questions that I had were explained to my satisfaction. I fully understand that only those agreements in section B of this document or recorded on the attached annex(es) will be honored. Any other promises or guarantees made to me by anyone are written below."

    Ultimately, if it's not written in your enlistment contract, it's not a promise and therefore can't be grounds for a breach of contract. It's that simple. That said, on rare occasions, there is an option for discharge from service due to a true breach of contract. Most of the time, it's related to a guaranteed job.  

    To understand how this breach of contract can play out, it's important to understand what a "guarantee" means within the context of your enlistment contract. For example, a "guaranteed job" in your enlistment contract does not always mean you will get that job after basic training.

    There are many reasons you may not get the job your enlistment contract guarantees.

    In general, if you can't get the job due to something beyond your control (such as the service phased out the job, downsized the job, made a mistake and discovered that you don't qualify for the job, or you are denied a security clearance for reasons other than falsifying information), then you will be given the choice of applying for a discharge or choosing a new job. Most of the services impose a time-limit on applying for a voluntary discharge due to this kind of breach of contract. Usually, you must request the discharge within 30 days of being notified that one of the guarantees in your enlistment contract cannot be fulfilled.

    In this case, the choice is yours. It should be noted, however, that while these situations have been known to happen, the are rare.

    If you fail to qualify for the guaranteed job due to a reason within your control (you fail in training, you get into trouble, or you are denied a security clearance, for instance), however, the choice is not yours. The military will decide whether to discharge you (essentially throw you out)  or to retain you and retrain you for a job you qualify for. In this case, it's the military's choice.

    Pregnancy Discharges

    In the past, a female member of the military who became pregnant during active duty could request military separation and get it almost automatically. But today, women play a much larger role in the military than ever before and the rules surrounding discharge for pregnancy have changed as a result. In short, pregnancy alone no longer qualifies as a reason for military discharge. While different branches of the military handle pregnancy differently, all are required to offer maternity leave. To learn more about pregnancy and military discharge, see Basics of Military Discharge for Pregnancy.

    Sole Surviving Son or Daughter Military Discharge

    Except during times of war or national emergency, you can request a discharge if they are a "sole surviving son or daughter." The most important thing to note about this discharge opportunity is who qualifies as a sole surviving child. Being an only child, or the only child born to your parents doesn't qualify you for this status. Neither does being the only child because of a civilian sibling death.  

    In the military, a "sole surviving son or daughter" is a person who whose parent of one or more sons or daughters served in the Armed Forces of the United States and:

    • Was killed in action
    • Died as a result of wounds, accident, or disease while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces
    • Is in a captured or missing-in-action status
    • Is permanently 100 percent physically disabled or 100 percent mentally disabled due to service connection

    In essence, this provision is intended to protect members of a family who have already lost immediate family members during their military service. The regulations pertaining to sole surviving children in the military are widely misunderstood. For more information, see our guide to sole surviving sons or daughters and Are "Only" Sons or Daughters Exempt from War?

    Involuntary Discharges

    While in most cases you cannot simply quit the military, the military services can certainly kick you out if you fail to measure up to their standards. This is generally called involuntary discharge, which is a type of administrative separation. Being released from military service by involuntary discharge is neither fast nor pleasant. In most cases, your commander must show "rehabilitative measures" have been taken before he or she can impose an involuntary discharge and that can mean Nonjudicial Punishment or Article 15, which can loss of stripes, loss of pay, restrictions, extra duties, and correctional custody before you are officially discharged.

    There are several reasons that you could be processed for involuntary discharge. Those include, but are not limited to:

    • Failing Weight and Fitness Requirements
    • Failing Training
    • AWOL
    • Misconduct

    For more detailed information about the process and most common reasons for involuntary separations from the military, see Military Involuntary Discharge.

    Other Ways to Get Out of the Military

    In addition to these rare, but possible early military discharges, some of the military services allow enlisted personnel to request early separation for release to the National Guard or Active Reserves.

    Other types of early separation are granted for reasons like service commitments, hardship, further education, government convenience, and conscientious objectors. These types early discharge are discussed at length in our guide to Early Discharge from the Military.