There are two primary reasons people take an interest in military personnel records Military veterans (and immediate family members) who are making inquiries for personal reasons. And genealogists who use them as an invaluable research tool.
The reason military personnel records are sought after by genealogists is the wealth of information they contain. While the information varies, these records can contain:
• Enlistment and appointment
• Duty stations and assignments
• Training, qualifications, performance
• Awards and medals
• Disciplinary actions
• Emergency data
Separation/discharge/retirement (DD Form 214)
Other personnel actions
The best place to start is with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which serves as official repository for records of military personnel who have been discharged from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard. This includes DD Form 214 (a.k.a. Report of Separation) and all other records.
For most researchers, the DD Form 214 (or similar forms prior to 1950) is enough. It includes the most relevant information requested by genealogists. According to the NARA, it may include:
• Date and place of entry into active duty
• Home address at time of entry
• Date and place of release from active duty
• Home address after separation
• Last duty assignment and rank
• Military job specialty
• Military education
• Decorations, medals, badges, citations, and campaign awards
• Total creditable service
• Foreign service credited
• Separation information (type of separation, character of service, authority and reason for separation, separation and re-enlistment eligibility codes)
Before you request any files, keep in mind that these records are only available by the military veteran, next of kin with his or her written consent, or next of kin after the veteran is deceased. The NARA defines next of kin as an un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister. This means all other inquiries, even from extended family members, are treated as requests from the general public.
How to request military records as a member of the general public.
The general public may only request information only after those records become archival, which is 62 years after the service member’s separation from the military. This year, the general public may request records between 1917 and 1950. (Requests for records prior to 1917 require different forms.)
Requests can be made using the eVetRecs System (which requires an online account) or by mailing/faxing form SF-180. You can find that information online at National Archives Veterans Service Records. Requests for information about veterans prior to 1917 are handled by a different division.
Before you make a request, it is extremely important to gather as much known information as possible. For military records after 1917, for example, requests must include the veteran’s complete name, service number, social security number, branch of service, dates of service, date and place of birth, and additional information if those records may have been involved in the 1973 fire. (Next of kin must also provide proof of death.)
“What stands out to me as the son of two veterans is how important it is to request those files while your loved ones or next of kin are alive,” says Randy Sutton, president of Celebrating Legacy. “It’s too easy to forget critical details or misplace a service number, which could automatically delay any detailed research for up to 62 years from the year that the veteran was discharged.”
The reason NARA requests so much information is simple enough. The National Personnel Records Center receives more than 1.4 million requests annually, with approximately half requesting DD Form 214 and 10 percent requesting files.
Other helpful hints related to military record requests.
• NARA only returns key documents and extracts on the first request. Additional records may require follow-up requests.
• NARA provides an emergency number for living veterans who need information for home loans, veterans benefits, or in preparation for retirement.
• Veterans and next of kin may request medal replacements. Each service branch may have different guidelines for next of kin requesting medals.
• For anyone deemed a member of the general public, reconstructing decorations and medals can only be done with the help of commercial sources. The NARA recommends using Official Military Personnel Files as a guide.
• The NARA makes special allowances regarding Records of Persons of Exceptional Prominence (PEP). These records are made public as soon as 10 years after death. About 500 individual PEP records are listed here.
Celebrating Legacy maintains that the best way to construct a biography or military memoir of service men and women is during active service or immediately following their service. This is one of the reasons that when Celebrating Legacy is launched, active members will receive complimentary membership.