Why it’s so hard to find Vietnam War veteran military records

Fun fact: It’s incredibly difficult to find my ancestor’s Vietnam War veteran military records. Wait. Did I say fun? I mean INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING.


So as it turns out, finding the military records for my grandfather is going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Like WAYYYYY harder than I thought.

In my attempts to find Bill Walker’s military records, I searched through Ancestry.com’s database which — while helpful in almost every other aspect — is a bit of let down when it comes to military records. A search query for what I knew of Bill yielded only information regarding deaths of soldiers as well as where they’re buried.

Knowing Bill died recently and that my grandfather also left Vietnam in 1972, it is safe to assume that he wouldn’t be found on any of those records.

Frustrated, I did what I always do when confronted with a question I can’t answer by myself…

…and turned to Reddit!

Within its deep well of subreddits of all shapes and sizes, there exists a small community of genealogists in the appropriately named /r/Genealogy. It’s been a great resource so far for good ancestry websites, testing kit suggestions, and any and all stupid questions I might have.

So I threw it to the subreddit: How do I find the records for Vietnam Veterans?

And with that question came a few great answers — including one suggestion for a new site from Ancestry.com that’s exclusively for military records (Fold3).

But the most comprehensive answer I could find regarding why my search for Vietnam War military records was so fruitless came from a user by the name of /u/MrLinderman who wrote:

There will likely be very little out the except for indirect references (i.e. a mention of a medal or wound in a town newspaper, a town monument, etc).

Access to the [Official Military Personnel File] records for the general public is only available 62 years after their discharge.

He linked to the website of the United States government archives which turned out to be both enlightening and disheartening.

The reason it’s so hard to find Vietnam War veteran military records

As it turns out, millions of military records of all personnel are held at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. It’s a massive archive of the health and medical information from all discharged and deceased veterans who served during the 20th century.

According to their website, though, a person who is not the veteran or the veteran’s next-of-kin would have a difficult time getting access to the records.

Without the consent of the veteran or next-of-kin, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) can only release limited information from the Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) to the general public.

You are considered a member of the general public if you are not the veteran, asking about a veteran who is of no relation to you or seeking information about a veteran who is a relative but for whom you are not the next-of-kin.

The next-of-kin is defined as any of the following: the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister of the deceased veteran.

As it turns out, military records need to wait 62 years before they become archived — and therefore made to the public.

 The only way to access those records is to file a request from a widow/widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister from the deceased.

i.e. not me.

Alternative solutions to find Vietnam War veteran military records

But there is hope! From what I’ve seen, people searching for Vietnam War veteran military records can do 3 things:

  1. Find out if they had any military commendations or awards. The government keeps records regarding awards and medals service members have received on hand and available to the public.  If you know if your ancestor received a commendation for their service, more likely than not, the information can be found there.
  2. Find out where they served — and who they served with. This is another great tip from /u/MrLinderman: find someone who knew what unit they were in or where specifically they served. You can use this information to find out what division they were in and where they were in Vietnam. There is a HUGE community of Vietnam veterans online based on the division in which they served. Here’s a great example of one such community.
  3. Follow the money. Again from /u/Linderman: “This would be a super hail-mary, and would only give you anecdotal evidence, but you could always search he registry of deeds where he lived and you’d likely be able to pull their mortgage document on their home if they owned one. If it’s a VA loan from a VA lender, you might be able to see that.”

So there you have it. That’s why it’s so incredibly frustrating to find any records for people who served in Vietnam — and how you can work around that.

For me, I’m going to try and find out if I can pinpoint the division in which my grandfather served, which means I might have to have another long chat with my ba ngaoi soon…

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