Patience pays off

October 2007:

 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.

 April-May 2008:

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.”

November 2008:

Another rejection letter, this time from the National Archives. Even though I had located (via’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.

April 2009:

After moping for a few months not really knowing what to try next, I happened across a thread on, 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.

December 2009:

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.

Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 10:31 am  Comments (1)  

Decoration Day

When I mentioned to my editor that I was heading to East Tennessee for Decoration Day and hoped to leave early to get a jump on the traffic, she gave me a puzzled look.

“Decoration Day? What’s that?” she asked, knowing that we had just enjoyed a three-day weekend in celebration of Memorial Day.

I explained that Memorial Day used to be celebrated on May 30, and that it had been known as Decoration Day. The name “officially” changed in the 1960’s when President Johnson decreed the last Monday in May to be a federal holiday known as “Memorial Day,” meant to honor and remember the men and women who perished while in service to their country. Tradition is very strong in the mountains and valleys of East Tennessee, and my Clinch Mountain relatives still celebrate Decoration Day on the Sunday following Memorial Day.

Unlike other parts of Tennessee, those from East Tennessee do not celebrate the Confederate Decoration Day, which is held on June 3. East Tennesseans were staunchly Unionist during the Civil War, and did not secede with the rest of the state. I’ve traced many of my East Tennessee ancestors to the Civil War, and not one of them wore the grey.

Most of my ancestors are buried in small family cemeteries. Some are attached to tidy little church houses; some are perched on hillsides within a ring of trees; still others sit tucked away in the corners of farmers’ fields – family land now in the possession of someone else. Regardless of their location, the cemeteries are made to look their very best for Decoration Day – grass is mown, weeds are pulled, and the headstones are cleaned and polished before flowers are placed. Tiny, ancient cemeteries with only a handful of weather-worn stones get the same royal treatment as the church cemeteries. The path to one diminutive family graveyard was fraught with weeds and poison ivy on the trek up the hillside, but inside the worn picket fence the space was clean and tidy.

This year the weather forecast was calling for thunderstorms on Decoration Day, so we went to the cemeteries on Saturday instead, although most still planned to gather on Sunday for the traditional dinner on the ground at the little church next to the largest of the family cemeteries.

I took along an old, framed picture of long dead ancestors that I hoped someone could help me identify. The picture had always hung in my grandparent’s house, and when they passed away the picture went to my Dad. When he died, it became mine, but I didn’t know who they were. I’d already asked Dad’s remaining siblings about it, but the ancestors had died long before any of them were born, and they couldn’t recall their names. All I knew was what Dad had told me, “These men are your grandma’s uncles.”

Grandma had a lot of uncles – which of the twelve were they? As we walked around the cemetery, we chatted with family and strangers alike (for really there were no strangers – a few minutes of talking usually revealed yet another branch in the family tree) and showed the picture to them, to no avail. Most were simply too young to know.

We were close to giving up and I’d already put the picture back into the car when my cousin Bruce said, “Well I believe that old woman over there was married to a Cook. Let’s go see if she knows anything.” We spoke to her and she agreed to have a look at the picture. When I showed it to her she said, “Well they’re definitely Cooks, but I don’t know which ones.” The photo had created quite a bit of interest by this time, and soon a few more had gathered around to have a look. One was a woman about my age who had been cleaning off the picnic tables in preparation for Sunday’s dinner on the ground. (It’s not literally on the ground, it’s on picnic tables – but it is on the church ground, hence the name) She took one look at the picture and excitedly pointed to the man on the left. “That’s grandpa! I’d know that picture anywheres! We’ve got a smaller one like that and he’s with grandma in it! That is Rev. Isaac Cook!”

I was over the moon to finally know who at least one of the uncles was – and we were standing less than 20 feet from his grave at the time. We got to talking excitedly with each other, which piqued the interest of others in the cemetery, who came over to see what the fuss was about. One of those who came over was a 94 year old woman who said she’d like to look at it too. We held up the picture so that she could see it, and she pointed to the man on the right and said, “Well I do believe that is John Cook. Them boys all favored one another, but I am near certain it’s John. He always was a most handsome feller…”

Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

In Search of my Great Grandfather

I really hate trying to wade through government bureaucracy, but it is a necessary evil when requesting military files on deceased ancestors. Most government web sites are incredibly bloated, with the pertinent information buried so deep on the site that it takes a lot of patience to weed out the wheat from the chaff.


The National Archives is one of the better governmental web sites, but it is filled with a frustrating nightmare of subcategories. First time users to the site may throw up their hands in defeat, no matter how web savvy they may otherwise be. I know when I first began using their site I would get aggravated quite a lot. Usually this was because after clicking through the links on the site – getting deeper and deeper into the labyrinth – I’d suddenly come out exactly where I’d began, and none the wiser as to how to go about ordering the records I wished to order.


Once I found the correct path, I saved it as a favorite so as not to lose it again. The National Archives is a great resource for requesting pre-WWI military records – once you locate the proper forms and go through the proper channels. I’ve gotten a number of ancestor’s files from the Archives, mostly Revolutionary and Civil War records. Each Military Service Record costs $25.00 and is money well spent since the records give an interesting glimpse into the life of the ancestor.


It took awhile, but I managed to track down the military service records for my great grandfather William Seal. I knew he had been a proud member of the U.S. Military because he had the information inscribed on his tombstone: Private Wm. Seal, Company H, 41st Regiment, US Volunteer Infantry. I also knew that he drew a pension and that my great grandmother continued to draw it after his death, but no one in my family could remember which war William had fought in.

 William & Elizabeth Seal grave marker

A quick look at his birth date clued me in – he wasn’t born at the time of the Civil War, and he would have been too old for service in WWI. That only left the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. I filled out Form NATF 86 (Compiled Military Service File) online at the Archives with the information I had on hand, and because my ancestor had been proud enough of his service to have the information forever inscribed where he lay, there was enough information for the researchers at the Archives to locate his service record and copy it for me.


My next task was to obtain a copy of his pension file. I tried to order them through the National Archives Request and Order Records link (which is how I got his military records), but when I finished filling out Form NATF 85D (Federal Military Pension Application – Civil War and Later, Complete File) I was thwarted by a pop-up window that told me that the Archives stopped storing pension records for soldiers who had died after 1929. My great-great grandfather died in 1942, so according to the National Archives web site, I needed to file a request with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs using the Freedom of Information Act.


Can I just say that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs is the most unfriendly web site I have ever encountered? Links go round and round in circles, giving precious little information and a whole lot of broken links and pages saying “We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties.” It’s truly unbelievable that ANYONE could ever find what they are seeking on this site.


Using information provided by the National Archives pop-up window, I learned which form was needed and where to send it, and I filled out and faxed Form NARA SF 180 to the processing center in St. Louis, Missouri. Unfortunately the processing center experienced a devastating fire in 1973 and lost more than 16 million Army and Air Force personnel records. Over 80% of the records for Army personnel discharged between November 1912 and January 1960 were lost in the fire, as well as 75% of Air Force records from 1947-1964.


William was discharged in 1901, but his pension claim continued until the death of his wife in the 1950’s, so chances are likely that his pension file was in the building destroyed by the fire. Still I wait and hope, and out of desperation I printed and filled out Form NATF 85D (Federal Military Pension Application – Civil War and Later, Complete File) and mailed it in to the National Archives, just in case the pension record of a young volunteer serviceman from Tennessee, discharged in 1901, is there.

Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 10:02 am  Comments (2)