On the anniversary of our country's fight for freedom, many family historians think about searching for their ancestors' military records. There are a number of ways to do that.
Records for any military service prior to 1917 are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. They are easily ordered through the Archives Web site at www.archives.gov. Many have been microfilmed and are widely available in libraries and other research facilities. Some have been digitized by Footnote .com and are accessible online with a subscription.
But getting copies of more modern-day military records requires a different access plan. They're held at the archives' National Records and Personnel Center in St. Louis, Mo.
Next of kin of a deceased former military member can get copies of a veteran's service file. The government defines next of kin as a surviving spouse who has not remarried, a parent, child or sibling.
Access to a service record is available to the general public, but what is released depends on the veteran's authorization, or provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
A veteran (or his next of kin if he is deceased) can authorize in writing the specific records that can be released to a researcher. The government suggests this wording from the veteran: "I authorize the National Personnel Records Center, or other custodian of my military service record, to release to (name of person or organization) the following information and/or copies of documents from my military service record."
The veteran must sign and date the authorization, which is good for one year. If the authorization is from the next of kin, he or she must provide proof of the veteran's death. Death certificates, letters from funeral home or published obituaries are accepted as proof of death.
The public also can get information from a veteran's file without authorization. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the public can request the veteran's service number, dates of service, branch of service, rank and date of rank, assignments and geographical locations, military education, awards and decorations, a photograph, transcripts of court martial trials, and place of entrance and separation.
If the veteran is deceased, the public information also will include a place of birth, date and location of death, and place of burial.
Those who are not next of kin must submit Standard Form 180 to request these files. This form is available online at www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records /standard-form-180.html.
Next of kin can begin the request process by going to www.archives.gov/veterans/evetrecs. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the red bar that reads "Request Military Records."
The real obstacle to getting 20th century records is that many were lost in a 1973 fire at the Missouri records center. An estimated 16 to 18 million files were lost, including U.S. Army personnel discharged from 1912 through 1959 and U.S. Air Force members discharged from September 1947 through 1963.
A third of the Air Force records had been relocated, but less than 4 million records of about 22 million housed in the burned area were recovered. Some were recovered with as little as one identifiable document.
Since 1973, the center has obtained alternative sources of documents to verify dates of service and separation for many of the veterans whose files were destroyed.
Among these are final pay records, enlistment registers from induction stations, an index of World War II service numbers and dates they were assigned, morning reports, unit rosters, and discharge orders.
From these, the records center will reconstruct a service file, but only after receiving a request involving that veteran.
In some cases there is no charge to get a service file. In cases where a fee is required, the center will contact the requestor with the amount. Processing time for these requests varies depending upon the complexity of the request and the workload at the center. The center asks requestors to give them 90 days before sending a follow-up inquiry.
Experienced researchers know not to expect much pure genealogical information from the pre-1917 service files and have learned that even the military details are sketchy at best. But record details in the more modern era that began with World War I are likely to be much more substantial and well worth seeking.
Analyzing evidence - a free workshop
Finding documents and evidence about ancestors is just the beginning of genealogy research. The keys to success are analyzing the finds and planning the next step. Join me at 2 p.m. Thursday for a two-hour workshop, "Developing a Strategy for Research Success: How to Analyze Your Evidence & Plan the Next Step," at the SouthShore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin.
The Friends of the Library are sponsoring the workshop, which is free and open to the public. It begins at 2 p.m. Seating is limited to 25 people and tickets will be distributed at the front counter beginning at 1 p.m.