U.S. government officials have decided to preserve the personnel files of every military member since 1885, and to allow public access to such records 62 years after official discharge or separation.
An agreement designating these files as “permanent records” was signed Thursday by Archivist of the United States John Carlin and David Chu, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. The National Archives and Records Administration will maintain the records “forever,” according to Greg Pomicter, Assistant for Operations in NARA’s Office of Regional Records Services.
This milestone event ensures that modern era military service veterans' records are protected and ultimately made available for research at the National Archives and Records Administration. Protecting these files is crucial because they contain essential evidence that veterans and their families need to claim life-long rights and entitlements that accrue from military service. Preserving the files for future generations is equally important so that family members, genealogists, biographers, and historians can research the history of those who served.
At last Thursday’s ceremony, officials noted that the military personnel files of 56 million veterans who served the nation since 1885 are covered by the new agreement. This ensures that modern era military service veterans' records are protected, and under the new policy, the public will have access to records 62 years after a service member’s official discharge or separation — “a wealth of information” that will appeal to a variety of individuals, according to Pomicter.
Personnel files contain medical information, performance reports, and disciplinary actions, as well as birth, marriage, and death records, and adoption records and visas for family history purposes.
It will take at least a decade for government archivists to transfer all 56 million eligible records to the public domain. That’s because before 1960, the Department of Defense did not necessarily file its personnel records by date of discharge, requiring archivists to sort through the jackets one-by-one to discern whether they meet the 62-year age requirement, Pomicter said.
The first major block of files — nearly 1 million personnel records for sailors and Marines that date back to World War I — will be released this fall.