how to get United States military (and sometimes VA) records for an ancestor / family member

People know me as a researcher who pokes around in special collections & archives whenever I can, and so I get a lot of questions on finding documents that aren’t readily available.

The question I get asked the most:

How do I get my (dad’s, grandpa’s, brother’s, mom’s) military records?

The process depends on a few things:

Is the family member deceased?
Are you defined as “next of kin?”
How long ago did they serve?
Which records do you need?

If your family member is deceased, they separated from service LESS than 62 years ago, and you are next-of-kin (daughter, son, father, mother, sister, brother etc), then you need to fill out this form:

SF-180 Personnel Records

You can learn a lot more about the process at the National Personnel Records Center, which is part of the National Archives. It looks like right now they are behind due to COVID, but they have a skeleton crew in place for emergency requests.

You will need to include proof of death, which can be as simple as an obit. I actually used obits every time I needed a record, which both proved the family member had died, and that I was next-of-kin, since I was named in the obit.

If your relative separated from service 62 years ago or longer, the record is now “archival” and you do not have to be next-of-kin. The process is similar, but you will need the instructions on this page.

Sometimes, friends ask me how I got my father’s, uncles, and brother’s VA records, which are not the same as personnel files. These are medical records of treatment in the VA and are protected by HIPAA and other laws. These records are much harder to obtain, for obvious reasons.

For these records, you need Form 10-5345.

I was able to get VA records for a few reasons:

1. For my brother’s, I was next-of-kin, and because my (half)brother had died in mysterious circumstances while facing trial, and I was in the middle of obtaining a genetic diagnosis, I proved sufficient urgent reason to release them. It didn’t come without a bit of struggle, though! I actually had a nerve-wracking phone call with the VA General Counsel, during which he drilled me as to how I held the same standing as another half-sibling who had been listed as next-of-kin in the medical records. Obviously, I satisfied his questions.

2. For my father’s records, it was simple: he died, and my mother had power of attorney. She simply signed my request on Form 10-5345, and they were released.

3. For my uncle, I faced a bit of a battle. I requested them on behalf of my father, so he wouldn’t die not knowing what happened to his (half)brother. It’s a long story, but my uncle was institutionalized most of his adult life, and the family always believed something had happened to him in the Navy. His personnel records had been sealed since 1959, and I secured their release with no issue. His VA records, I was at first denied. However, my father was in a similar situation as I had been with my half-brother. I simply pulled out the letter from General Counsel explaining why I should receive my brother’s VA records, and I told the VA it would be arbitrary and capricious to grant me a half-brother’s VA records under very similar circumstances, but deny my father the same thing. I won! (If I hadn’t won, it turned out my aunt stood ready to sign the form, as she was his conservator, but I didn’t need it.)

If you are next-of-kin, you can also request medal replicas, usually for free.

I hope this helps in your genealogical, memoir, and/or historical research.