People observe Veterans Day in many different ways. Some go to a parade, others a memorial service, and many simply take a moment to reflect on the military service of their family members or friends.
I have found that a great way to honor those who have served is to help them or their family members learn more about their military service. A lot of people are surprised to learn how easy and cheap (usually free) it is to get a copy of the service records of a family member. Over the past few years, I have had the good fortune of helping family members, friends and work colleagues learn more about their own service or that of their loved ones.
Where are These Records Held?
The National Archives is responsible for holding service records for discharged veterans. At its two main locations in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., the National Archives holds tens of millions of service records dating back to the late 1700s, according to its website. These records include every military service branch and even Confederate service records. Unfortunately, a massive fire at the main St. Louis location in 1973 destroyed or damaged around 18 million records, many of which were for those serving in World War II, including both my grandfathers and other people I know from the so-called Greatest Generation. Nevertheless, even if you are looking for records from that timeframe, you should still give it a shot and hopefully those records survived.
How to Order the Records
These records are available for free to the veteran or their next of kin if the veteran is deceased. If the veteran was discharged more than 62 years ago (so in 1953 or prior), the service record is available to the public for a relatively small fee of up to $70.
Ordering the records is pretty straightforward and detailed instructions can be found at the National Archives’ website. You do, however, need to have some basic information about the veteran whose record you are looking for so the staff can locate the right service records. This information includes the veteran’s:
- Complete name used while in service
- Service number or Social Security number
- Branch of service
- Dates of service
- Date and place of birth (especially if the service number is not known)
Generally, I have found that this process takes from a few weeks to more than a month, and that the staff can usually find the right record even if you don’t have all the information above. But the more information you can provide, the quicker it will be to find that record.
What You Will Find
In response to your request, you will receive a thick manila envelope that contains dozens, if not hundreds, of pages of documents detailing the service of the veteran. Standard information includes dates of service, promotions (or demotions if he or she got in some trouble), awards, schools attended, overseas service and much more. I remember getting my dad his Marine Corps service record from the early 1960s, and we got all sorts of interesting documents, including evaluations he received and assignments he held that had long been forgotten. I also helped one our team’s senior executives obtain documents about his service as an infantryman and impress his wife that he had been trained in how to properly load a ship with military equipment.
So this Veterans Day I encourage you to learn more about the veterans in your family, or, if you are a veteran, take a trip down memory lane and get a copy of your service record. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I would be happy to help as best I can. Or, if you learn something new or fun about your family member’s service, share the story and keep the memory of his or her service alive.