Want to request family members' military records? Here's how it works
Posted March 18, 2015
Updated November 11, 2015
Dotson, a producer at WRAL-TV, filed a records request to see what medals her grandfather had received. What she found led to a sweet surprise for her family, especially her father.
The National Personnel Records Center holds the historical records of nearly 100 million veterans and responds to more than 1.4 million records requests each year, according to the National Archives.
The vast majority of those records are on paper and not available online. They can be used for things such as proving military service or as a tool in genealogical research.
Dotson wanted to find out more about her late grandfather, Jack, who served in the Army in World War II, Korea and North Africa. He retired as a sergeant major and died in 1998.
She learned that her grandfather was in the military police and was awarded more than a dozen medals, including a Purple Heart and two bronze stars. She was able to order the medals and surprise her father with them last year as a belated Father’s Day gift.
“Giving my dad the medals went great. He was so overwhelmed to receive them,” Dotson said. “My sister, Rebecca, and I decided to wrap up the Purple Heart first and have him open it. Then, as he was trying to figure out how we had gotten it, he opened up the box with all the other medals laid out. He was speechless.”
Requesting military records can be time-consuming but is worth the wait, according to Dotson, who said she started researching how to get her grandfather’s records in August 2013.
“It worked out in my favor that the Army considers (the) eldest grandchild next-of-kin. It’s the only branch that does,” she said. “So I solicited my mom for help, and she sent me the information about my grandfather – birth and death dates, service dates, Social Security Number and military ID number, etc., all without my dad knowing.”
Dotson printed a form off the National Archives’ website and mailed in the information she had.
“The records department matched my information with my grandfather and sent back a more complete list of medals he was awarded,” she said.
Dotson received confirmation that her request was approved in December 2013 and received her grandfather's medals in April 2014, which included:
- Silver Star
- Bronze Star
- Purple Heart
- Army Commendation Medal
- American Campaign Medal
- European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
- World War II Victory Medal
- National Defense Service Medal
- Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award
- Expert Badge with Pistol Bar
- Army of Occupation of Germany Medal WWI
- Korea Defense Service Medal
- Belgian Fourragere
“There was one medal that he was given by Belgium. The archives department told me I would have to order that either online or at a military surplus store,” Dotson said. “That was the only award I had to pay for. The rest, from the U.S. government, were re-issued at no cost.”
How to request military records, awards and decorations
Accessing the records depends on several factors. Some of the older records – for service members who separated from military service in 1953 or before – are open to the general public. It's based on a rolling date. For example, the current year, 2015, minus 62 years. Other records are only available to the veterans and their family members.
- For the veteran: In general, the military will work to get medals replaced for the veteran at no cost. This includes family members with the signed authorization of the veteran.
- For the next-of-kin: The process and cost for replacement medals differs among the service branches and is dependent upon who is requesting the medal, particularly if the request involves an archival record.
- For the general public: If the service member separated from military service before 1954, the public may purchase a copy of the veteran's Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) to determine the awards due and obtain the medals from a commercial source. If the service member separated after 1953, the public may request such information from the OMPF via the Freedom of Information Act.
Important information for next-of-kin:
- Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard: Next-of-kin is defined as the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister
- Army: Next-of-kin is defined as the surviving spouse, eldest child, father or mother, eldest sibling or eldest grandchild
- If you do not meet the definition of next-of-kin, you are considered a member of the general public.
Required information to request records:
- Veteran's complete name used while in service
- Service number
- Social Security number
- Branch of service
- Dates of service
- Date and place of birth (especially if the service number is not known).
- If you suspect your records may have been involved in the 1973 fire, also include: place of discharge, last unit of assignment and place of entry into the service, if known.
- All requests must be signed and dated by the veteran or next-of-kin.
- If you are the next of kin of a deceased veteran, you must provide proof of death of the veteran such as a copy of death certificate, letter from funeral home or published obituary.