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Researching Military Documents

Understanding more about military service and its paper trail.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1143 (approx.)
Labels: Military Record 
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Conflicts, strife and wars have not only been part of American history, they are something every country and every individual in the world has experienced in one way or another. The United States was forged from a war with England and has continued to participate in a parade of wars ever since. For the genealogical researcher, such conflicts and threats of conflict create a potential for a member of someone's family to protect the homeland. These patriotic endeavors add color, drama, lessons, and sometimes tragic consequences to be recorded in the family story.

Unfortunately, one may find it difficult to recover records of such activities from archives. Fortunately, war has been a government lead activity, and as such, a predictable plethora of paper work has been produced and can be found organized and informative. The cycle from citizen to veteran through military service and back again is documented at several steps. The difficulty of gaining access to records is related to the fact that one can not find many military records after 1910 on the Internet. Other than draft cards, modern military records must be requested from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. They do have a website.

The Cycle of a Veteran

Among the broader spectrum of both past and current wars, military documents deal with draft records, muster rolls, service records, pension records, bounty land records, cemetery records, discharge papers (otherwise known as DD-214), and veteran records.

Entering the Service: Draft, conscription, registration, and selective service are among the terms bantered about from generation to generation in regards to military service. While the draft is compulsory, there has also been voluntary registration, and in both cases, applicants were required to fill out registration cards. Registrations are often compulsory in order for the government to know how many young men of eligible age were available at any one time. In the U. S., registration was suspended in April 1975, but was resumed in 1980 by President Carter.

Since 1863, the U. S. federal government has registered millions of men. A typical draft card of the Civil War to World War I includes a man's name, residence, age, occupation, marital status, birthplace, and other information. These can be ordered directly from the National Archives.

In the Service: Muster rolls or military rosters were created once new recruits were organized into groups or units. The registration of officers and men in a military unit or ships company are available. Beyond regular units, other muster rolls of Confederate personnel and even Loyalist to England during the Revolutionary War can be found in online databases.

Service Records: Once in the service, records are kept on the history of any particular recruit. Service records are listed at the National Archives. And once a person exits the service, he (or she) has discharge papers, also known as a DD-214 or separation document. Discharge papers have some restrictions because of vital information and must be requested directly.

Those Leaving the Service: There are additional documents created after having served in the military, including pension records, bounty land records, and cemetery records.

Pension records as well as service records can be found at NPRC, but cemetery records are often found with links to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs. If you go to this site and select "related links," you will find the government maintains 131 National cemeteries in 39 states, as well as 33 soldiers' lots and monument sites. You can also check with individual states that have state veteran cemeteries. The Department of the Army is responsible to maintain Arlington National Cemetery and the Home National Cemetery in Washington D.C.

There is also the American Battle Monument commission cemeteries (ABMC), which has 125,000 graves overseas and another 94,000 missing-in-action tablets.

In the early years of the Republic (United States of America) Bounty land grants were used as a means of payment for a veteran's service during a particular war, from 1775 to 1890. They were issued for the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian (1780 -1890), and the Mexican War. Such grants were often used as barter, and the family that eventually settled the land may not have been the veteran to which the grant was originally issued.

Requesting Documents

Prior to 2009 the NPRC did not explain their policies on providing documents. They can provide a copy of the separation document and, in some instances, a copy of an individual's entire folder. There are two principal reasons military records are requested. The first is to apply for benefits, and the other is for research and historical significance. Usually, NPRC can provide a Certification of Military Service which can be used to verify an individual being in the service. Since the1970s, the center excludes sending "all" documents, with an emphasis in providing only the necessary data for the purpose of acquiring benefits. Some papers concerning leaves, identification card and clothing issuances are deemed less important. An example of documents most likely to be extracted include, Military Service Dates; Character of Service; Promotions and Reductions; Duty Stations and Assignments; Foreign or Sea Service; Military Schooling and Training; Awards and Letters of Commendation; Disciplinary Actions; Lost Time; Enlistment Contracts; Entry and Separation Physical Exams; Immunizations, Dental Examinations, and Clinical Summaries.

Requesting Forms

The U. S. National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) has an online request system called eVetRecs. You may use this system if you are a military veteran or a veteran next of kin (spouse, parent, sibling, or child). If you are not next of kin, you must use Standard Form 180 (SF180). See the NARA website for more information.

Insufficient information turned in on a request for military documents may be returned. There are other forms that can be filled out, mainly, Form 13075 (Questionnaire about Military Service) and 13055 (Needed to Reconstruct Medical Data).

Beware of companies who purport to be in the business of getting DD214's for a customer. Many are not linked to NARP and do not actually go to the military records in person. The only company which is known to have government contracts is Lyon Research.

In all cases of research today, one should use a couple good search engines and check for resources on the Internet, in addition to using NPRC. Many duplications of rosters and battle histories have been posted by previous researchers and add greatly to the mix. Sometimes it is easier to follow the exploits of a certain naval warship or a particular battle than any one of the participants. But, if you know an ancestor was on a ship, or member of an air wing or military unit, you will know he saw the same action as his unit saw at a particular date.

Millions of requests pour into NPRC each year. It is for genealogists some of the best spent tax dollars.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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