I wrote a letter to the National Personnel Records Center requesting the military service and/or pension records of my great-grandfather, William Seal, under the Freedom of Information Act. I also filled out and sent in Form 180 (Request pertaining to military records) although I wasn’t sure which form was the correct one to use because the VA website is clear as mud.
My great-grandfather didn’t serve in one of the “big wars” (Civil War, WWI, WWII), he fought in the little known war called The Philippine Insurrection. Because his military service fell between the Civil War and WWI, I couldn’t figure out which agency might hold his records, but I knew that he definitely served, definitely drew a pension, and that his wife drew a widow’s pension until her death in 1952. The only thing I didn’t know was where his records were being held.
I received a rejection letter from the NPRC, telling me that they couldn’t find his records and that I needed to contact the National Archives. I visited the website, found out what forms I needed and filled out NATF Form 85 (Order for copies of federal pension or bounty land warrant applications), ticking the box marked “Full pension application file-Civil War, 1860 and later.”
Another rejection letter, this time from the National Archives. Even though I had located (via Ancestry.com’s wonderful military section) both the application number and certificate number of William’s pension request and approval, the National Archives stated that they could not find his records.
After moping for a few months not really knowing what to try next, I happened across a thread on Findagrave.com, a site dedicated to cataloging cemeteries and gravesites, which had tips and pointers for requesting military records. One board member told of his own frustrations and hassles with trying to obtain pension files, and suggested a way to do it that would allieviate having to go blindly through myriad agencies. His suggestion was to write to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and request that they run a BIRLS search for the file from the Federal Records Center under the Freedom of Information Act. BIRLS is an acronym for Beneficiary Identification and Records Locator Subsystem, which is a database that contains records of all beneficiaries, including veterans whose survivors applied for death benefits. When a BIRLS request is submitted, every government agency that has anything at all to do with military/pension records will have to run a search for the file.
It sounded worth a shot, so I typed up a letter and sent it off. I got my first rejection card a month after I mailed off the letter, but this time instead of it being a dead end, the card informed me that my request had been forwarded to another agency. Two months later I received another rejection card, and was informed that my request was being forwarded to yet another agency. At least this was promising – I finally felt as though the government was actually responding to my plight.
JACKPOT! After hearing nothing for several months, I received a huge parcel in the mail and in it was the motherlode of information on my great-grandfather’s service during the war and all pension records from the time he applied for it until my great-grandmother’s death. And oh, what a wealth of information it is! Hundreds of pages, including many letters handwritten by my great-grandfather, stories of his illness (malaria) and injury, stories from friends and acquaintances, copies of both great-grandparents’ death certificates, and letters written by their children.
Best of all was the enclosed letter from the government agency that located the records for me. They apologized for the length of time it took to find the records, and they sent them to me free of charge, even though I offered to and expected to pay for them.
If this is part of President Obama’s government restructuring program, I am all for it!
For those wishing to have a BIRLS search done for an ancestor’s military records, here is what you need to do:
1. You must write a letter to the VA Freedom of Information Officer.
2. State that you are requesting access to the pension file under the Freedom of Information Act.
3. Give them the XC pension file number and any other info you have to identify the soldier you are requesting the file on.
4. Be sure to include the following sentence: “I am requesting that you conduct a BIRLS search for the file and retrieve it for my use from the Federal Records Center where it is currently housed.”
The VA requires a FOIA request in writing and signed by the requestor. Your request must reasonably describe the records so that they can be found with a reasonable amount of effort. You must state your willingness to pay any applicable fees or provide a justification for a fee waiver. Also include your daytime phone number in case they need to contact you, and put your address on the letter in case the envelope is misplaced.
Write “Freedom of Information Act Request” on the envelope and mail the request to:
VA FOIA/Privacy Act Officer, VA Central Office
Department of Veterans Affairs
Director, Records Management Service (005E3)
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Best of luck in your search – and remember, persistence and patience can pay off.