Courts & Crime

Navy’s discharge of Biden’s son sheds light on military discipline

Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter forfeited certain veterans benefits as well as some privacy and pride when he was booted from the Navy, reportedly after testing positive for cocaine.

Other servicemembers have fared arguably worse for similar offenses, including sailors sentenced to jail time after testing positive. But Biden’s newly revealed Navy separation, while higher profile than most, also appears to be within the general range of expected outcomes given the alleged offense.

“It’s not uncommon,” attorney Philip D. Cave, a military law specialist who represents many servicemembers, but who was not involved in Biden’s case, said in an interview Friday. “I don’t see anything unusual.”

William Cassara, another experienced military law practitioner, agreed Friday that “in the Navy, administrative discharge is the norm, although I did have a petty officer court-martialed for a one-time positive urinalysis for cocaine several years ago.”

That sailor, whose initials are J.W.R., was sentenced to 90 days in the brig, a reduction in rank and forfeiture of three months pay after a court-martial panel convicted him on one count of wrongful use of a controlled substance. At the time, the enlisted man had nearly 19 years of active-duty service in the Navy.

In April 2013, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction.

Biden’s administrative discharge, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, came after the vice president’s son reported for duty to Navy Public Affairs Support Element East in Norfolk, Va. Now 44, Biden had enlisted in the Navy Reserves in 2012.

“It was the honor of my life to serve in the U.S. Navy, and I deeply regret and am embarrassed that my actions led to my administrative discharge,” Biden said in a prepared statement provided to the media.

Vice President Biden’s office on Friday declined to comment, and the Navy has declined to offer further details about Hunter Biden’s discharge.

Cave noted that considerable leeway is left up to commanding officers to resolve individual fates following what amounts to a routine drug offense. Different branches can also take different approaches. The Reserves, for instance, tend to “handle things a little easier,” Cave said, while the Air Force has a reputation in some circles for taking drug suspects to court martial.

A key question, whose answer is still not publicly known, is exactly what type of administrative discharge Biden received. An administrative discharge might be classified as either “general” or as “other than honorable.”

“An otherwise good sailor would be more likely to get a general discharge,” Cave said. “It’s fairly quick to do.”

An other-than-honorable discharge, by contrast, could take longer as it could be contested before a three-member administrative board.

Besides the taint, the other-than-honorable discharge carries several additional disadvantages compared to a general discharge. A veteran with a general discharge, for instance, is still eligible for civil service hiring preference ; the veteran with an other-than-honorable discharge is not. Both kinds of discharge render the veteran ineligible for GI Bill and VA housing benefits.

When the Navy pursues a court martial related to drug charges, records show, the allegations typically go beyond simple use.

In Everett, Wash., for instance, an Aviation Electronics Technician Airman was sentenced to eight months and a bad conduct discharge last February after pleading guilty to possession and intent to distribute, in addition to use of cocaine. The next month, at the Washington Navy Yard, an Electronics Technician 1st Class was sentenced to 45 days and a bad conduct discharge after pleading guilty to false statements and wrongful use of a controlled substance.