Kerry’s “Less Than Honorable” Discharge?

N.Z. Bear and others (e.g., Glenn Reynolds, Big Trunk, and Ed Morrissey) have roundups and analysis of the long-rumored charge that John Kerry was originally discharged from the Navy with an other than honorable discharge. The only semi-credible source I’ve seen on this is the NY Sun, which has this story:

A former officer in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps Reserve has built a case that Senator Kerry was other than honorably discharged from the Navy by 1975, The New York Sun has learned. The “honorable discharge” on the Kerry Web site appears to be a Carter administration substitute for an original action expunged from Mr. Kerry’s record, according to Mark Sullivan, who retired as a captain in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps Reserve in 2003 after 33 years of service as a judge advocate. Mr. Sullivan served in the office of the Secretary of the Navy between 1975 and 1977. On behalf of the Kerry campaign, Michael Meehan and others have repeatedly insisted that all of Mr. Kerry’s military records are on his Web site at, except for his medical records. “If that is the case,” Mr. Sullivan said, “the true story isn’t what was on the Web site. It’s what’s missing. There should have been an honorable discharge certificate issued to Kerry in 1975,if not earlier, three years after his transfer to the Standby Reserve-Inactive.” Another retired Navy Reserve officer, who served three tours in the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel, points out that there should also have been a certified letter giving Mr. Kerry a choice of a reserve reaffiliation or separation and discharge. If Mr. Meehan is correct and all the documents are indeed on the Web site, the absence of any documents from 1972 to 1978 in the posted Kerry files is a glaring hole in the record.

The applicable U.S. Navy regulation, now found at MILPERSMAN 1920-210 “Types of Discharge for Officers,” lists five examples of conditions required to receive an honorable discharge certificate, four required to receive a general discharge “not of such a nature as to require discharge under conditions other than honorable,” and seven for “the lowest type of separation from the naval service. It is now officially in all respects equivalent to a dishonorable discharge.”


Given this, it is likely that a legal review took place that effectively purged Mr. Kerry’s Navy files and arranged for the three-year-late honorable discharge in 1978.There were two avenues during the 1977-1978 time period. This could have been under President Carter’s Executive Order 11967, under which thousands received pardons and upgrades for harsh discharges or other offenses under the Selective Service Act. Or it might have merged into efforts by the military to comply with the demands of the 1975 Church Committee. Mr. Sullivan was personally involved in the 1976 and 1977 records review answering Senator Kennedy’s demands to determine the scope of any counterintelligence abuses by the military.

In the Foreign Surveillance Act of 1977, legislation introduced by Mr. Kennedy to enforce the findings of the Church Committee, there is language that literally describes the behavior of Mr. Kerry. The defined behavior that could no longer be subject to surveillance without warrants includes: “Americans having contact with foreign powers in the case of Americans who were active in the protest against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Some of them may have attended international conferences at which there were representatives of foreign powers, as defined in the bill, or may have been directly in communication with foreign governments concerning this issue.”

I’m incredibly skeptical of the story. An “Honorable” discharge is the default position and, certainly, it is what one would expect for someone who was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with “V” device, and three Purple Hearts during his tour of duty. The worst discharge Kerry could have had without a Special Court Martial is a “General” discharge.

The presumption in the Sun story is that Kerry got into trouble with the Navy for his meetings with the enemy, which strikes me as reasonable enough, but one would think this is something that would have surfaced long before now. Kerry has been in heated races before. Unless things worked considerably differently in the early 1970s than they do now–a possibility that I grant–Kerry would have received an “Honorable” discharge upon his release from active service and a second discharge upon his release from the Navy altogether. (Indeed, I’ve got at least three “Honorable” discharges to my credit–upon my release from the U.S. Military Academy in 1986; my release from Active Duty in 1992; and my release from the Individual Ready Reserve in 2003. I might also have gotten one upon my release from the Army Reserve in 1988 before going on Active Duty; I don’t recall.) So, even if the story is true–which I doubt–Kerry would have received an “Honorable” discharge before he didn’t. Which, come to think of it, would be fitting.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Military Affairs, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jaloti says:

    I also have been skeptical of the whole discharge story, but the thing I keep coming back to is why did he have his medals re-issued, with new verbiage and new signatures, in the 1980s? If it was just throwing away the hardware, he could easily get new ones with the paper. If he lost the papers, he could get copies from the Navy. Why would he have them re-issued? I can’t find a reason, other than if he had been stripped of them by a prior other than honorable discharge? Am I wrong?

  2. sourland says:

    So. That being said, why won’t he release his full records? What is he hiding?

  3. Anjin-San says:

    Heres what we know… Kerry is a decorated war who voulenteered to go to Nam.

    Bush faild to show up for a required physical during wartime and had his flight status revoked as a result. Even with the very low service requirments he faced in the guard, he did not cut the mustard.

    So of course we have to smear Kerry, just like the GOP slimed Max Clelland, who became a triple amputee in the service of his country.


  4. There’s something fishy about Kerry’s military career, but I doubt he actually got a dishonorable discharge. I think the navy simply withheld his discharge, because of his dishonorable behavior, and Kerry thought discretion was the better part of valor and didn’t have the nerve to ask for his discharge.

    Then, in 1978, with Congress firmly in Democrat hands, and Jimmy Carter President, he pulled some strings (Teddy)and quietly got an honorable discharge. Given the political climate at the time, no naval officer who wasn’t looking to have his career ruined would have stood up to it.

  5. LJD says:

    We also know…
    Regardless of his official records (about which we can only speculate) and the “ribbons” (or medals) he claimed to throw over the fence, John Kerry’s conduct following the war was certainly unbecoming of an officer, and certainly not characteristic of a Commander in Chief. His actions continue to piss off hundreds of vets who served much longer than four months, even 30 years later.
    Not to mention 60% of the soldiers fighting in Iraq (about which every one is griping)support President Bush.
    Kerry’s own conduct, political history, and false campaign promises have smeared him far more than any other individual ever could.
    What is a shame is the constant degrading of the sacrifices of our National Guard and Reserves. Even these part timers have sacrificed more than 99% of the (outspoken) population of this country.

  6. Anjin-San says:

    Please show me one quote that is verifiable where Kerry “degraded the sacrafices of the National Guard and reserves”. What a load of crap.

    I mean, something like say, Rudy Guilaini blaming the troops for Bush’s failure to secure explosives that he had been explicitly warned about.

    As for Kerry protesting the (Vietnam) war, who has more right to protest than someone who was there, shed his own blood, and killed in the service of his country? I have some issues with Kerry, but he served honorably in combat, unlike the chickenhawks and chairbone rangers in the Bush admin who send brave men to fight & die in Iraq.

  7. LJD says:

    I don’t know what Kerry has said. I was speaking of outspoken, although misguided pundits, voters criticizing the President for being in the Guard. It throws mud on the faces of men and women now serving.

    Of course, the dems are well known for trampling over the military for their own gain, and ending the paragraph with: “…But, I support the troops”. That’s a load of horse crap.

    My main point was that 99% of people in this country, many who are very outspoken on the war, have never stepped up to the plate.

    I will be so glad when the election is over and Kerry goes away. What a lame candidate. Hopefully the dems can give you some more intelligent talking points to regurgitate in 2008.