When an ex-GI applies for employment, a Human Resource department must consider military service as part of the applicant's work history when conducting the hiring process.  Actually, it should be considered an important part of a candidate's background.  This period in a (usually) young person's life can demonstrate their ability to receive and respond to supervision and training. Any former serviceperson will tell you that if you survived the drill sergeant's supervision you can accept direction from anyone. And the many specific types of training a serviceperson receives while in the military can be equated to many civilian jobs.  Leadership skills are also taught in the service. And if maturity rates high as a prerequisite with your company, then ex-military people are the ones you should be looking at… if they successfully completed their military obligation.

If a civilian employer considers an applicant's college degree as a qualifier for employment, why shouldn't another applicant's military service also be given equal consideration?  The college grad submits his or her transcript as documented proof of attendance, participation and graduation after four years in college.  What documentation is there to validate an individual's enlistment in the service?

The answer is the form number… DD-214 (Department of Defense), generally referred to as discharge papers that are issued to every serviceperson who has separated from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard.  Its proper name is Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty.  

A DD-214 is created in eight copies. Distribution of those copies include two (#1 & #4) for the serviceperson.  The problem is that there are 22 boxes for information on Copy #1 and there are 30 boxes for information on Copy #4.  It is on Copy #4 that the serviceperson's "character of service" is listed, along with codes that further describe the serviceperson's enlistment and reasons for separation from military service.  In fact, there are three different codes that can be included in one or more of these additional boxes. 

The SPD (Separation Program Designator)code (Box 26) or the SPN (Separation Program Number) code and the RE (Re-Entry) code (Box 27), also the NROS (Narrative Reason of Separation) (Box 28) are descriptors of the serviceperson's period of enlistment.  Descriptors are terms such as Expiration of term of service; Early Release - To attend school; Sole Surviving Son; and Dependency or Hardship.  Those codes also contain many negative descriptors such as Character or Behavior Disorder; Drug Use; AWOL, Desertion; Alcoholism, and Shirking.  Re-entry codes are listed to give military recruiters background information on a former serviceperson that wants to re-enlist.  Some of these codes include Involuntary separation with Honorable discharge; Participating in Substance Abuse Reorientation and Treatment program for Alcohol, or has failed to complete orientation; and Exceeding body fat standards discharge. NROS codes include terms such as 'hardship; disability, not in line of duty'; 'misconduct'; and 'unsatisfactory performance'. 

There are literally hundreds of (SPN, SPD and NROS codes) reasons for separating from the service which the government conceals, through coding, from a prospective civilian employer. 

Further concealment is accomplished through only delineating these codes on the #4 copy of the DD-214.  And final concealment occurs when the prospective employer's HR manager asks the applicant for a copy of his discharge papers and the ex-GI produces the #1 copy as his or her bona fide documentation, which it is to the unlearned HR person.

In fact, it is likely that the problematic ex-serviceperson only has the #1 copy of his DD-214, because he is given the option of receiving the #4 copy when he is discharged.  A dishonorably discharged soldier or sailor might sooner not want the copy with the codes, which copy would then be forwarded to the Military Records Center in St. Louis.  Copy #4 is retrievable by the serviceperson but can take as long as 6 months or more to receive it.

After the Vietnam War, a system of codes were added to the DD-214 that were intended to provide military personnel and recruiters with a summary and characterization of the former serviceperson's first tour of duty so that if the vet wanted to reenlist, the recruiter would have something to review to make an informed decision as to whether the vet was worthy of re-enlistment.  The problem was that civilian employers got their hands on the code system and were making hiring decision based upon these SPN and NROS codes.

For a number of years the coding system was minimized but as the branches turned into an all volunteer military, there was again a need to identify and screen out individuals from re-enlisting who had questionable first tours and subsequently wanted to join another branch. And so the codes were reintroduced. And again, civilian employers obtained the code definitions and used them in making hiring decisions. 

As a compromise and to conceal these codes from all but military personnel, DoD created a new policy of issuing discharged veterans two copies of their DD-214.  As described above, there are no codes listed on the #1 copy. The #4 copy contains not only the SPD code but also a clear text definition of the SPD code called the Narrative Reason for Separation (NROS), which had never been used before on DD-214s. 

As a means of ensuring that all personnel receive copy #4, DoD also places the Veteran's "Character of Discharge" (Honorable, General, Dishonorable, etc) on this copy and not on copy #1.  In short, a veteran is not issued a DD-214 that show he or she received an Honorable Discharge unless they "request" a DD-214 that might also list negative information. 

The request is in the form of initialling Box #30, "member requests copy 4".

So, if you are interviewing a veteran and ask him to produce his discharge papers, and he/she displays copy #1, ask to see copy #4.  If the ex-serviceperson states he never received any other copies, it would be fair to assume that he/she might not have wanted to receive that copy in the first place because it included negative information about the individual.  If you need to know the full story, then demand that the applicant mail in a request to St. Louis and then make a decision to hire or not hire because it will often take 6 months or more to receive the forms.  You can also request the copy under FOIA and with the applicant's signed release.

Another reason to request an original copy from the National Records Center is to make certain that the copy presented by the applicant has not been altered.

To order a copy of a serviceperson's DD-214, visit the former NARA website now combined under the new URL of:  Then click on "Research Room" and then click on "Veteran's Service Records".  Look to the right and find "The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.", and click on "Holdings".  You will see a few options.  Under "To order records from St. Louis." Click on "Standard Form 180".  This is a PDF file containing three pages of instructions and and the form itself.  Complete the form providing as much detail as you can. In Section III, specify under "Other" that you are an employer (Prospective). 

You will also need a signed release from the serviceperson.  NARA suggests the  following:

Military Personnel Records - Sample Authorization

The following is suggested as an example of an acceptable authorization:

"I authorize the National Personnel Records Center, or other custodian of my military service record, to release to (your name or that of your company and/or organization) the following information and/or copies of documents from my military service record."

Complete the authorization by specifying the information and/or document(s) requested.  Be sure to sign and date the authorization.  Authorizations are honored for one year from the date of signature.

Separation Program Designator (SPD / SPN) codes and Re-Entry (RE) codes are available.  See notes at the end of this article.  Civilian employers are warned that the interpretation and use of these codes in making hiring decision is strictly prohibited by the DoD and are only furnished upon request for informational purposes only.

Copyright © James M. Dallas  April, 2003

The referenced SPD/SPN/RE codes are available by scrolling through the Investigative Services section of our website.


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