Service members with Other-Than-Honorable discharges receive no veterans benefits and are much more likely to become homeless. But the military has no consistent standards about who gets a dreaded "OTH."
According to data from the Defense Manpower Data Center, more than 615,000 Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force veterans were discharged with less-than-honorable discharges from 1990-2015.
"The numbers are staggering,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Co.), a retired Marine officer.
There's a range of discharges below the level of honorable. They can be awarded after a conviction by a courts-martial for felonies, but also are handed out by non-judicial administrative boards for misdemeanor-level misconduct.
Among other things, the so-called "bad paper" discharges can be a pathway to homelessness, according to a recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Researchers attempting to find factors that contribute to veteran homelessness discovered that bad paper makes a veteran five to seven times more likely to fall into homelessness.
In Los Angeles, those who work with the homeless have seen that firsthand.
“There is a direct correlation between those who left with bad paper and who ends up homeless on our streets,” said Melissa Tyner, an attorney who runs the Homeless Veterans Project based near L.A.'s Skid Row.
Tyner says the current military disciplinary system "is, in many ways, creating an underclass of veterans."
And, some experts say, the system isn't fair.
Discharge characterizations range from "honorable" to "general, under honorable conditions," "other than honorable," "bad conduct," and finally "dishonorable." Without an honorable discharge, the VA progressively reduces the benefits vets can receive—all the way down to zero in the case of a "dishonorable discharge" awarded at a court martial.
For Pasadena native Michael Bullers, his was somewhere in the middle.
Until recently, Bullers was homeless on L.A.'s streets.
An Eagle Scout in his teens, Bullers started smoking marijuana recreationally, and decided to join the Navy to "grow up" a bit.
He served aboard an aircraft carrier during the first Gulf War in 1991, but he never really stopped doing drugs even though he knew that doing so was against the law.
Bullers tested positive for cocaine following a random urinalysis. He was punished but allowed to stay in the service. And just two weeks before the end of his enlistment, he "popped positive" for drugs again.
His commanders decided to kick him out -- with a bad paper discharge.
Retired Marine lawyer James Weirick said that in Bullers' case, the Navy didn't need to be so harsh.
"There wasn't really a requirement for the Navy to take such a severe action because of the long-term consequences that he would face," he said.
Weirick said there's little consistency to who gets an other-than-honorable discharge (OTH). Numbers vary greatly by service and over time.
"Across the services we don't have a uniform standard for an OTH," he said. "And I can understand the services differ on their desire for either more or less discipline, but that shouldn't determine what that servicemember gets later as far as medical and other assistance."
The Pentagon declined repeated interview requests for this story, but said in an email that the system is fair and provides due process.
There is some legislative appetite for change.
Coffman has introduced legislation that would allow veterans with bad paper to access VA mental health services.
"Given the number of homeless I just think it's very important for a veteran, irrespective of discharge, to have access to mental health care," he said.
In addition to mental health care, many vets like Bullers aren't eligible for housing voucher programs through theVA because of their discharge.
Bullers is appealing his discharge—a process that can take years and is rarely successful.
Bullers has housing now—a place he found with the help of a homeless service provider New Directions in El Monte, California. But he still wants his papers cleaned up.
"I had spent four years of my life with the government," Bullers says. "And I want people to be proud of me."