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Military Archive Dive: Secrets of How to Research Your Veteran’s History

A professional researcher shares how to navigate an incredible journey of discovery


spinner image a pile of old letters, postcards and photographs are displayed on a wood table
Old letters, postcards and photos are displayed in a clip from the movie "Dear Sirs."
Mark Pedri Films
spinner image closeup of a rusty dog tag with the text thank you veterans engraved in it, next to a flag of the United States

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to truly meet a veteran relative or ancestor as they were in the past, walk in their footsteps through the documents, photos and records that hold a piece of who they were? 

Fortunately, there are many tools to help us discover untold stories. How to use them in your research, however, can be tricky.

I researched the history of Sgt. Silvio Pedri, my husband’s grandfather, who had served in the 95th Infantry Division and been a POW in World War II. That led to a trove of remarkable material about his life, culminating in us making the documentary film Dear Sirs.

Here are some tips I learned as a professional researcher.

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Start with what’s under your nose

Who was this person to you and to everyone else they knew? Did the person have a journal, or maybe an old photo album in the attic with names and dates on the back of photos? Ask friends and family for details that will expand your research.

Be careful, though. Memories can be flawed, and sometimes basic information about ranks, units and places can be wrong. Treat facts passed down orally as clues.

Search databases

Online genealogy databases such as Ancestry.com (AARP members get a 30 percent discount) and FamilySearch.org contain records of censuses, immigration, birth, death and marriage records. FindAGrave.com can yield details of relatives and key dates. 

If the person was an immigrant, fascinating details can be found in the Ellis Island Passenger Search. A searchable database of online military records has been built by Fold3, the military partner platform of Ancestry.com. 

Newspapers.com is a great place to get accounts that help paint a human picture of the person you’re researching. Many local papers covered veterans’ deployments and when they returned home. There are obituaries and birth and marriage announcements too.

Use free resources 

One of the most comprehensive of these is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website, which holds military records from the Revolutionary War to the present, including service records, pension records, military maps and unit records. 

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If you qualify as a next of kin to the veteran you’re researching, a good place to start is NARA’s Military Service Records page where you can request a copy of your family member’s military records online. 

Specifically, a veteran’s Report of Separation, or DD214, will include important basic information such as dates of service, medals earned, unit information and discharge status. For veterans discharged prior to 1950, the Record of Separation will have a different form title. Be prepared to wait — it can take two years for requests to be fulfilled.

Other great online resources are the Library of Congress, the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), the Korean War Project and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which offers a Nationwide Gravesite Locator to help you find burial locations of veterans and their family members. 

You can search for names and key words inside books via the Open Library or Google Books.

A great collection of places to go can be found on the U.S. Military Academy resource list. A lot is available online, but many records are not digitized, and there is nothing like holding an original document.

Look into the unit

Remember that veterans were part of a greater whole. Look for clues in photos. Uniform insignia are great starting points to pursue more in-depth unit research. 

Most military units have their own histories. Look for unit journals and other reports. The Bangor Public Library has a vast collection of digitized WWII regimental histories. 

For a deeper dive, we worked with a professional research company called Footsteps Researchers that went to the National Archives and pulled morning reports, unit journals and after action reports for Silvio’s unit. This built a day-to-day picture of where Silvio was in France before his capture. 

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You can hire professional researchers to pull original files. But you can also book an appointment to go to the National Archives in St. Louis or in College Park, Maryland (often referred to as NARA II). Don’t be daunted. These facilities are open to the public and have helpful staff. 

Mine social media groups

There are many social media groups dedicated to exchanging information about specific military branches and units. In these, you can meet other people who might be able to provide you with books, first-person interviews, journals or even family letters.  For example, we joined a group dedicated to the history of the 95th Infantry called The Iron Men of Metz

It’s even worth searching on eBay to see if someone is selling a box of photos or letters from the same unit. The magic of social network groups and the internet is that you can access someone else’s attic archive.

Check out museums, and look overseas

The National WWII Museum offers resources and programs to help families research their World War II veteran relatives, including an extensive online oral history and photo database

Go beyond the U.S. to places such as the Imperial War Museums in the U.K. or the Bundesarchiv in Germany. These are especially relevant if your subject was in WWII or WWI. The joint nature of many military operations in WWII means that the National Archives in the U.K. contain records of American personnel.

If you know where your veteran was stationed, you can call city and town archives to request nondigital records. 

Bottom line

This can seem overwhelming. Where and when do you even start? Right here, right now! Make your research scratch pad, subscribe to a few free trials of the resources above and you’ll be amazed by where the incredible journey takes you.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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