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GenealogySpot > Features > Military Records

Military Records

If your ancestors served our country in war, they experienced battle at its most vicious. Tracking down their military records may not be life threatening, but be prepared. It may not be easy. But the research is worth the effort. Military records, such as discharge certificates, death records and records of training, can provide key genealogical information.

Many people incorrectly turn to the Department of Defense to gain access to records of American veterans. Once military service is completed, however, the National Archives and Records Administration maintains and stores Field Personnel Files in St. Louis, Mo. The office preserves all files from the 20th century (though a catastrophic fire in 1973 destroyed 18 million records).

Unless you are the veteran or the veteran's next of kin, access to military records is limited to dates of service, awards and training. You are required to put your request in writing, preferably through a Standard Form 180, "Request Pertaining to Military Records." The form can be downloaded from NARA's site, but because a signature is required by law, requests cannot be made by e-mail.

Because of the laws regulating this information, you're unlikely to find the whole records online. However, the Internet can help provide a basis for your research. "Increasingly, more of this information is going online, and as it does, it will become much easier for genealogists to discover the military pasts of their ancestors," said Susan Wenner, associate editor of Family Tree Magazine. "They won't have to fill out forms, mail them, pay for copies, wait for ages and pray for something to show up in the mailbox anymore."

There are many routes to take to find information about your military ancestors. You can search by cemeteries, branch of service and period or war served.


Veteran's cemeteries-including Arlington National Cemetery-can have key information. The Arlington page lists biographies of select individuals buried there, including Medal of Honor recipients and those who died with General Custer at Little Big Horn. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains lists of soldiers buried at American military cemeteries overseas and those reported as missing in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The Department of Veterans Affairs can provide limited information about servicemen and women buried in their cemeteries. For a searchable database of more than 11,000 soldiers who were declared either prisoner of war or missing in action, visit the US POW/MIA Records.


Most of the branches catalog their own history, and you may be able to learn more about your ancestors through their records.

Period/War Served

Here's just a sampling of historical war coverage. For everything from the Texan War of Independence to the Persian Gulf, try the Military Research Room and the USIGS Research Library Military Collection Links.

  • Civil War
    The National Park Service Civil War Soldier and Sailors System lists 2.7 million soldiers, including their regiment, side, company and rank. View state-by-state directories of soldiers at Civil War Rosters. A work in progress, the US GenWeb Archives Pensions Project is endeavoring to provide free pension records online for each state.

    "One of my favorite military sites is the Military History Institute Photograph Database," says Nancy Hendrickson, co-author of the electronic book "The Family Tree Guide to Internet Genealogy" and a contributing editor to Family Tree Magazine. "You can search the database of photos and if you find a person you think is your ancestor, you can request a free photocopy of the picture. I like this site because it gives researchers a chance to find photos of their ancestors; and even if their ancestor is not in the database, they can search for a photo of the regiment, or a photo of a battlefield where their ancestor fought. It's a wonderful way to add real flesh to 'just a name.'"

  • World War I
    An article from NARA entitled "They Answered the Call: Military Service in the United States Army during World War I, 1917-1919" provides a good starting research point.

  • World War II
    For state battalions, casualty lists and muster rolls visit USIGS Research Library. You can also find a listing of those killed in Pearl Harbor at the Military Research Room.

  • Vietnam
    The National Archives provides state-by-state casualty lists for the Vietnam conflict. Records are sorted alphabetically by last name of the victim and include their grade of service, date of birth, date of death and place of death. View a virtual Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the Virtual Wall.

If you find information on your veteran, you may want share it with other Internet researchers. You can do so at the Veteran Ancestor Registry, a cooperative project of The American Local History Network and The United States Internet Genealogical Society.

   --- M. Magnarelli

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