Reclaim The Records Files Freedom of Information Act Lawsuit–US Department of Veterans Affairs

The following announcement was written by Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

Reclaim the Records has previously filed suit in different state jurisdictions—their new Freedom of Information Act litigation is against a federal agency– the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The law suit, filed on September 17, 2018, asks the US Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a copy of the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File. A letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs dated September 13, 2018 states they “remanded the request to their FOIA Officer for further consideration, appropriate processing and issuance of a subsequent IAD”. [IAD means Initial Agency Decision] The case is still pending.

This database contains basic information on about fourteen million deceased American veterans who served in the US military and then later received benefits from the VA, such as healthcare or the GI Bill, between approximately 1850-2017. Each record includes the veteran’s dates of birth and death, dates of enlistment and release, and branch of service. Some years have a little more information available than others, including the veteran’s basic cause of death (i.e. natural or combat-related), gender, and possibly other fields.

Everyone listed in the database is deceased. The information is currently not available on any free website, not even through the main US government open data portal, data.gov. It’s not searchable, and certainly not downloadable. However, Ancestry and its affiliate Fold3.com has the information. While Ancestry is a subscription site, many public libraries offer free access to the site to those with their library cards. The Department of Veterans Affairs declined the Reclaim the Records request to obtain the BIRLS database in April for privacy reasons. The Department further corresponded with Reclaim the Records saying they would refer the request for further study in a different department. According to the Reclaim the Records newsletter, the Department of Veterans Affairs said they erroneously released the database to Ancestry. They also claimed that this BIRLS database release amounted to “a data breach of Veteran’s personal information”.

To read the Reclaim the Records newsletter announcing this litigation see: https://mailchi.mp/reclaimtherecords/bfvk8vew84-1892225?e=1fcb9139f0.
To view the request see: https://www.reclaimtherecords.org/records-request/20/.

To access past IAJGS Records Access Alert postings about Reclaim the Records go to the archives located at: : http://lists.iajgs.org/mailman/private/records-access-alerts/. You must be registered to access the archives. To register for the
IAJGS Public Records Access Alert go to: http://lists.iajgs.org/mailman/listinfo/records-access-alerts. You will receive an email response that you have to reply to or the subscription will not be finalized. It is required to include your organization affiliation (genealogy organization, etc.)

10 Comments

Virginia A Buechele November 14, 2018 at 9:11 am

Is it true that Reclaim the Records is funded by the Mercers?

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    What?!? No Reclaim the Records is a Non Profit started by a Genealogy researcher from San Francisco whose family history is in New York and she got frustrated & pissed off at NY State and NYC for denying public records to the public. She now has successfully sued several city and state agencies, won the suits and published the records, ALL available for Free to the public!
    Reclaim the records has a website and they are funded by people like me $10, $20 at a time. Please google her wonderful organization and donate so she can continue to make Public Records available for FREE to the public!

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    https://www.reclaimtherecords.org/

    Here is the link and the Mercer’s have zero to do with this Non Profit.

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    Hi Virginia. You’re confusing “Reclaim The Records” (a California-based non-profit org, started by a frustrated genealogist) with “Reclaim New York” which is a TOTALLY DIFFERENT organization. We’re proud to say that our funding comes from donations within the genealogist, historian, journalist, educator, and open records community — and not sketchy Cambridge Analytica types. 😁

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They released the records to Ancestry “Erroneously “ what utter BS!

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Yes, Ancestry.Com has a file that covers 1850-2010. In the article it states this goes to 2017.

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    But you have to pay to see it and now NY says they released it in ERROR 🙄

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    Hi James. Ancestry has the data up through 2010 and they received their copy several years ago. So when we made our own FOIA request to the Department of Veterans Affairs late last year, we asked for a more up-to-date version of the database, including more recent records, if they are available.

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Dick’s article states that the database contains info on deceased veterans who received VA benefits between approximately 1850 and 2017. The VA did not come into existence until 1930, though veterans benefits of some sort have been provided though various agencies since the Revolutionary War. I am curious as to what kinds of info are available in this database for years prior to 1930.

Guy I. Colby IV
Irving, TX

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David Paul Davenport November 15, 2018 at 12:31 pm

Although the BIRLS death file contains the dates of enlistment and discharge, and the date of death, the lack of detail has surprised me. It should also contain the regiment or other military unit the deceased veteran serve in. And I would like to suggest to “Reclaim the Records” that an effort be made to “force” the VA to provide access to all of the Applications for Headstones for Veterans. Trying to get this information from the cemeteries where veterans are buried, especially the National Cemeteries – seems to be impossible.

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