Written by Beth Reuschel
Beth Reuschel is a professional military records researcher who helps families discover their legacies of service. The VBC is partnering with Beth to guide family history seekers through their own research journeys. She’ll offer tips and tricks for those who want to plunge into the archives and retrace the footsteps of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who served. You can learn more at reuschelresearch.com.
When you take on the mission of researching your veteran’s service history, the first lesson is don’t give up.
There will be obstacles and seeming dead-ends. They can seem insurmountable. But the paths to discovery are many, and there’s almost always a workaround. Even brick walls can be climbed.
For example, one of the first things you may hear is that 75–80% of the Military Personnel Records burned in a fire in 1973 at National Archives in St. Louis.
This is true, but only for Army and Air Force records, not Navy or Marine Corps.
If you request Military Service Records from the National Archives (a great place to start), and the veteran who you are researching does not have a file due to the 1973 fire, your veteran’s story does not have to end there, and neither does your research mission.
Case Study: Tech4, Raymond E. Schmidt
The first veteran whose service history I researched was my Great Uncle Raymond Schmidt who was KIA 14 March 1945 near Heddert, Germany.
My grandmother kept all of his letters, which was monumental in building his story of service because his records were 100% destroyed in the 1973 fire.
Raymond’s letters from April 1941 to March 1945 yielded all the clues I needed to map out his service in the war.
Second lesson: if you have wartime letters in the attic, pull them out and use them to start building your veteran’s service history.
Start by creating a timeline.
Put the letters in sequential order. It’s best to order them according to the date the veteran wrote on the letter, not the postmark on the envelope. Use sticky notes to mark them or make notes. Don’t write on the letters or envelopes.
Once they’re in chronological order, look for and make note of any changes in the unit assignment of your veteran. You may be lucky, and remained in one unit. In the case of my Great Uncle Ray, he was transferred eight times in four years. Mapping his unit assignments and corresponding dates was key in rebuilding his service history. Below is the first draft I compiled from the information in Ray’s letters.
Now, take a break and read your veteran’s letters in their entirety.
Use any information they contain to add detail to your timeline. Maybe there’s a place name mentioned or a public event referenced. These scraps of information can help enormously as you move forward.
In Part 2, I’ll show how to use your timeline as a treasure map to navigate official records and reclaim your veteran’s lost story.
You can reach Beth Reuschel at reuschelresearch.com or firstname.lastname@example.org