Ordering military service records which are held at the National Archives can be a confusing and frustrating process for those who are unfamiliar with the many rules and procedures involved in the process. I am on site at the National Archives working with military service records almost every day of the week, so I have a bit of inside knowledge on exactly how the ordering process works and how your requests are responded to. This short guide will help you to understand how different kinds of military service records are maintained and what your options are for requesting military service records. My hope is that this guide will make the process a bit less confusing.
Archival or non-archival?
If your veteran was discharged from military service OVER 62 years ago from today’s date then his military service record is open to the public. Military service records held by the National Archives which are considered to be ‘open to the public’ are referred to as archival military service records. Typically, these archival service records detail the military service of individual veterans from the Civil War, WWI, WWII and the start of the Korean War. If you are looking for the records of a veteran who served in the military and was discharged LESS than 62 years ago from today’s date you will need to check out my non-archival guide located here: Obtaining Non-archival Military Service Records.
Archival military service records=Records of veterans who were discharged MORE than 62 years ago from today’s date and are open to the public.
Non-archival military service records=Records of veterans who were discharged LESS than 62 years ago from today’s date and are not open to the public.
Now that you understand how the National Archives governs the release of these records let’s take a look at how to request these military service records which are open to the public. There are essentially three options for obtaining an archival military service record.
1. The first (and best) option is to travel to the National Archives to view your ancestor’s military service record in person. Being able to handle the original documents in your veteran’s military service record is an exciting experience that connects you to the past in a much more tangible way than simply viewing copied or scanned paperwork. By visiting the National Archives in person you will have the option to scan, photograph or copy the military service record yourself. In most cases you can do this by just paying a small fee for copies (there is no charge if you wish to scan the military service records). If you wish to view a military service record in person you will first have to determine which National Archives facility maintains custody over the military service records you wish to view. Most archival military service records for veterans who served prior to the Twentieth Century are maintained at the National Archives Washington D.C. location. By contrast, most of the archival military service records for veterans who served in the Twentieth Century are held at the St. Louis located, National Personnel Records Center. Below is a chart from the archives.gov site which shows the archival holding facility for military service records from each branch of the service. If you have an idea of the time period your veteran served in the military this chart can help you to narrow down exactly where their military service record is held.
Once you have determined the location of the archival military service record you wish to view, you will need to contact that facility to make an appointment to view the military service record. Here is a link to a short guide on setting up an appointment to view records in person at the National Archives. If you plan on making this trip yourself you should read this primer and contact the research room at the email address provided here: Set an appointment to view archival military service records.
2. The second option is to have a well-known military research firm locate and copy your veteran’s military service records for you. Many folks are under the mistaken impression that the National Archives will copy and send military service records to the public without charging a fee. In fact, when it comes to archival records, the National Archives operates as a ‘for-profit’ organization. If you live too far away from the National Archives to view your veteran’s military service record in person, you should hire a reputable research group to copy your veteran’s military service records. In many cases, ordering a military service record through a private research firm which has researchers on-site at the National Archives is actually cheaper than paying the government to copy and mail the record to you. Without question, this option is much faster than dealing with the government, and you will have the service records in a couple of weeks rather than months. Using a private research group to locate and copy your ancestor’s archival military service record also ensures that you will be getting the complete military service record. In my experience the National Archives copying technicians tend to produce sloppy work. What this means for you is missing paperwork, omitted photographs of the veteran, or illegible copies of the originals.
To order an Archival military service record (service records of a veteran who was discharged OVER 62 years ago from today’s date) you will need to know the veteran’s full name, date of birth and place of birth. If you also know the veteran’s service number it can speed things up since this is how archival military service records are maintained by the National Archives. I am the lead researcher at Golden Arrow Military Research, which has a stellar reputation and provides exceptional work at fair prices. I highly recommend that you contact them to help you get your veteran’s military service record. To request a military service record click here: Obtain a military service record.
3. And of course the final option: Ordering a copy of your ancestor’s military service record directly from the National Archives. Each veteran who served in the Twentieth Century has a unique military service record and these are stored at the National Archives. If you want a copy of your veteran’s complete archival military service record you will have to pay for it (the only exception I have seen to this is when the veteran themselves are still living and personally wish to obtain a copy of their military service record ). The National Archives charges $70 for a complete military service record (actually it costs $70 for anything over 6 pages). This is a slippery slope which, again, I recommend against. In many cases you will actually be paying more for the added hassle and longer wait time for your requested military service records.
Make sure that you have your ducks in a row if you want to request a military service record directly from the archives. When you send in a request to the National Archives and are not sure of the veteran’s service number this increases the odds that you will simply receive a letter telling you that they can’t find the record. This is not because the military service record is not held at their facility, but rather that they have so many requests coming in that they do not have the resources to give special attention to your individual request. You must take care to provide as much information as you can to ensure success when dealing directly with the National Archives. This means the full name, date of birth, place of birth and ideally the service number of your veteran. Having the veteran’s service number does not, however, always guarantee success. In the past I have submitted requests two and even three times before receiving notification that the military service record I was requesting had been located. The key to success when requesting records directly from the National Archives is perseverance.
To request your veteran’s military service record directly from the National Archives you will need to fill out and mail or fax a form 180. The form 180 and instructions for sending in your request can be located here: Order a military service record from the government. Once you mail in or fax your completed form 180, your request will be assigned a case number. The military service record will be located by the National Archives and you will receive a reply letter letting you know how much it will cost for them to reproduce and mail you the requested military service record. You then mail in payment to them, they process your payment and then once your payment is processed (this may be several weeks/months later) the records will be copied and then mailed to you. At this time I have been waiting anywhere from 4 to 8 months for my mailed in requests to be responded to by the National Archives. Happy hunting!