The FOIA Process: Part 3 – What Do I Send, and Where Do I Send It?

| February 4, 2014

Once you have the information identified in the previous article, you need to prepare a FOIA request for information concerning the individual in question.

Like most things in the government, now comes the paperwork.  And yeah – there’s a form for that. (smile)

But here, for once you actually have some options.  You can either use the US Government’s Standard Form 180 (SF180) or a letter to make a FOIA request.  Either will work; which you use is a matter of personal preference.  I personally prefer using a letter, as I can tailor the letter to request specific things I think might be of value and which I suspect may or should be in the individual’s records.  But as I said – either works.

Whether you choose to write a letter or use the SF180, there are a number of elements a FOIA request must contain.  They’re listed at this National Archives web page.

Here is a format for a letter that I’ve used in the past when making FOIA requests (Word 97-2003 format).  It contains the elements required by the National Archives for such a request, plus some other items that are also very helpful.

If you prefer to use the SF180 for a FOIA request, you can download the current version of the SF180 and use that instead.  It’s available in fillable PDF format here.  You’ll have to ensure you enter the required items for a FOIA request as you fill it out.

If the individual in question is cooperative and will sign the SF180 themselves to allow a copy of their records to be released to you, that’s great.  That should allow you full access to their records.

But IMO, most of the time you probably shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.  (smile)

Otherwise, you’ll have to submit the SF180 without the signature of the individual concerned (you’ll have to sign it instead) or use a letter that you sign.  And without their cooperation, you’ll get only the information from their records that’s publicly releasable.  Don’t worry; for most stolen valor cases, that’s more than enough.

For once, with the SF180 the Federal government did an OK job with a preprinted form.  The form appears reasonably self-explanatory regarding the “how to” of filling it out.  And the explanations on the form answer most common questions.

Unsigned requests – letter or SF180 – are reportedly ignored by NPRC.  Whether you use a SF180 or a letter, don’t forget to sign the request.

Whether using a letter or the SF180, there’s something you need to remember while preparing a FOIA request.  It is critical to include the phrase “I request all information releasable under the Freedom of Information Act” as part of the request. That ensures you’ve actually requested everything that can be released to the public concerning the individual in question’s records.

It generally seems also to be OK to ask for PII-redacted copies (you should indeed specify PII-redacted if you suspect what you request may contain PII) of any specific items you think might be of value – e.g., certificates or orders for any specific decorations that are in question – that aren’t one of the items normally released to the public.  It doesn’t always work, but on occasion I’ve gotten PII-redacted copies of specific orders and other documents that way.

. . .

OK, you’ve got your FOIA request ready.  Now what?

Once you’ve drafted the letter or completed the SF180, the next step is figuring out what agency has the records in question – and thus where to send the request.  Here, you need to know whether the individual served in the Regular Components of the US armed forces (US Army, US Navy, US Air Force, or US Marine Corps), the Federal Reserves (US Army Reserve, US Navy Reserve, US Air Force Reserve, or US Marine Corps Reserve), or the National Guard (Army or Air).

The component(s) in which the individual served can make a substantial difference.  If the individual served in the National Guard, you may need to file multiple FOIAs to get the full and complete picture of their military career.

Service in the Regular armed forces and Federal Reserves (USAR, USAFR, USNR, and USMCR) is always Federal service.  An activity of the US National Archives called the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) has the responsibility for archiving personnel records relating to Federal military service.  They assume this responsibility when an individual receives their final discharge from the military or retires.  NPRC is located in Saint Louis, MO.

However, for completeness – to get the “whole story”, so to speak – you may need to file multiple FOIAs on someone who had National Guard service.  They may have done some duty on state vice Federal active duty orders which is relevant to their claims.

This sounds far more problematic than it usually is in reality.  Most questionable claims relate to combat service, combat decorations, or special qualifications.  Any service in combat will be Federal service (National Guard service while mobilized to support combat operations is Federal service); the NPRC should have complete records pertaining to all of an individual’s Federal service, and generally does.  Ditto attendance at most service schools that confer special qualifications (aviation ratings, Special Operations qualification, BUD/S, etc . . . ).

For veterans (e.g., those no longer serving in a Regular or Reserve component, including retirees) with Federal service (active duty and/or USAR/USAFR/USNR/USMCR), NPRC processes FOIA requests regarding military records.  This includes all who have been discharged or retired from any form of Federal military service.  If the individual served in the Regular or Federal Reserves of the armed forces, the FOIA request is sent to

National Personnel Records Center
ATTN:  FOIA Requests
1 Archives Drive
Saint Louis, MO  63138

If you’re in a hurry, you can fax your FOIA inquiry instead.  The fax number is at this link.  The link also gives a different fax number in the event you have an “emergency request” with a deadline; examples given of such emergencies are for funerals and “upcoming surgeries”.  (Yeah, I don’t quite understand that last one either.)

As far as I can tell, NPRC doesn’t accept scanned copies of FOIA inquiries sent to them via e-mail.  Why is a fax OK but not a scanned version of the same original sent by e-mail?  Damned if I know.  If you figure that one out, maybe you can explain it to me.

I can’t stress this enough:  you should always send a FOIA to NPRC, even if the individual claims to have served only in the National Guard.  This is because the individual may also have some Regular or Federal reserve service (or Federal service while in the National Guard – e.g., for training or mobilization) and thus have records at NPRC as well as with their state.  Most National Guardsmen have at least some Federal service for initial training.  Further, a deployment to combat as a National Guardsman will definitely be Federal service for which documentation should be on-file at NPRC.

Bottom line:  if you get a “hit” at NPRC, that will often answer most if not all questions about an individual making suspect claims.  That’s especially true if the claim relates to combat service or combat decorations.

If the individual served in the Army or Air National Guard, you may also need to send a FOIA request to the state (or states) in which the individual served in the National Guard to get the “whole story”.  This is because much National Guard duty is technically state service vice Federal, and the individual states maintain their own records for state service.  This document lists (as of Aug 2013) the proper addresses and contact numbers for National Guard FOIA requests for all US states, DC, and US territories.  The document technically lists Army National Guard FOIA offices, but many states seem to have a combined Army/Air National Guard FOIA office.  If it’s an Army-only office, they should at least be able to give you contact info for their state’s Air National Guard FOIA officials.

. . .

That’s a good stopping point for today.  The next article will cover typical times and potential costs associated with FOIA requests.

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It sounds like the social security number is critical. Any suggestions on how get that? I know I won’t give mine out. Even DOB is tough because soon as I question them they clam up.


Hondo, the reason many agencies (banks, government, prisons, real estate, medicine in particular) will accept faxes but not scanned Emails is:

Faxes go directly from one point to another (over phone lines). They do not traverse the Internet in any way.

Emails traverse the Internet, and attachments to most Emails are sent in the clear. They can be intercepted by any compentent network technician who has access to the relaying servers or routers. Some Emails may pass through literally scores of routers. Any one of these can be an intercept point.

Hope this answers your question. Not military but enjoy reading your blog. Do commercial COMSEC for my beer money.