The FOIA Process: Part 6 – Interpreting the Results and Miscellaneous Thoughts

| February 7, 2014

Once you’ve received a FOIA reply that’s not a “we couldn’t find anything” letter, you’ll need to figure out what it’s telling you.  Depending on your background and the service involved you may be able to do that yourself. But in many if not most cases, you’ll need to find someone with substantial military experience in the same service and era as the individual in question to assist you in interpreting what it says.

For example:  if the individual served in the USMC during Vietnam, it’s a good idea to get someone with Vietnam-era service (or with an extensive military background) to assist in evaluating the FOIA reply against that individual’s claims.  That individual must be someone who “speaks Marine” and understands USMC records and terms.

I can’t emphasize this enough:  if you can find someone to help you with an extensive military personnel background in the service concerned, you have struck gold.  Their help will be invaluable.  Buy them a drink – or dinner.  (smile)

Specialty experience (e.g, an actual former Special Forces guy if you’re dealing with someone who’s claiming Special Forces status or qualification) may also be very valuable in identifying lies and exaggerations concerning specialty qualifications and service.  “This Ain’t Hell” is also an excellent resource for sorting out FOIA replies – Jonn absolutely hates military fakes, and he can call on a load of expertise to assist in figuring out if a claim might be legit or not.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  No one knows it all.  There’s simply too much to know.

Am I punting here?  Damn straight.  At first, you’ll likely learn something new with at least every other FOIA reply you get relating to a sister service – if not with each one.  And you’ll learn a lot about your own service’s history and practices that you didn’t know before, too.

Unless it’s your service and your era, don’t try to figure it out all by your self; you’re likely to get it wrong.  And even if it is your service and era, no one knows it all.

Ask for help, if for no other reason than to get a second set of eyes on the docs.

Other Considerations and Miscellaneous Thoughts.

1.  To reiterate:  even if an individual claims to have only National Guard service (USMC and Navy don’t have National Guard elements, but Army and USAF do), it’s worthwhile to send NPRC in Saint Louis a FOIA request concerning the individual.  If the individual ever had Federal service while in the National Guard (e.g., for training, was mobilized, or otherwise served on Federal active duty), the NPRC should have records relating to at least that part of their service.  Most National Guard members serve at least a few weeks or months on active duty for initial training, so NPRC should at least have a record of that (not a 100% guarantee, but they should and usually do).  And combat-zone service will be Federal.

In short:  you could get the answer you need from NPRC – particularly if the questionable claim concerns service in combat or a combat decoration – with no need to file a FOIA with the state (or states) in which the individual served in the National Guard.  However, you may still need to file a FOIA with the appropriate state(s) for a National Guardsman to ensure you get the individual’s complete story.

2.  If you’re not sure about the individual’s specific branch of service, it’s probably OK to list several.  For example, if someone tells you they served in the “Army” but doesn’t go into more detail, it’s OK to list their service as “US Army, US Army Reserve, and/or Army National Guard”.  Many people have service in both the Regular Army and the Army Reserve components (USAR and/or ARNG); listing all three may ensure a more comprehensive search.  (The records are supposed to be consolidated, but I’d guess it’s possible that some records don’t get “married up” correctly and a few individuals end up with separate listings for their active and reserve records.)  It shouldn’t hurt to indicate both (or all three).  Ditto if the individual claims to have served in more than one branch of the military (e.g., USMC and Army).

3.  It’s a good idea to be very careful in how you gather information regarding an individual you suspect might be lying about their military service.  Eliciting information from or about them should probably be done carefully so as not to raise suspicion about why you’re asking.  And I can’t stress enough:  I most strongly recommend staying away from anything unethical or illegal in gathering information for a FOIA.  Getting fired, sued, or prosecuted just ain’t worth it.

4.  Depending on circumstances, when the situation allows another tactic that might be useful would be to tell the individual up-front you need to verify his/her claims through official channels and ask him/her to sign an SF180 giving you access to all or part of their military records.  (I really wish journalists would do this.)  If they balk, that may well be a “red flag” indicator they have something to hide.

5.  If you end up “getting the goods” on a fake, I would strongly recommend that you be very careful if/when you confront the person.  I’d recommend you think twice about confronting them in person.  If you elect to do that, I’d very much recommend you do so in a public place – and bring backup/witnesses with you to the confrontation.  If an individual is lying about their military record, they obviously have at least that much about their past to hide; they may have other questionable (or criminal) tendencies or history as well.  The individuals you bring as backup/witnesses may well come in handy in case the individual becomes threatening and/or violent.

6.  A caution about negative replies, which I can’t stress enough:  if NPRC cannot find an individual’s records, be very careful about interpreting their “we can’t find any records” reply.  DO NOT take that “we can’t find those records” as a categorically definitive statement that the individual never served.  If the name and SSN aren’t a match, you will get that answer (I’ve made a couple of typos and gotten a bad result because of doing so).  If you didn’t send enough information to allow a definitive match, you’ll also get that answer.  Ditto if the guy/gal served under another name, or with a different SSN.

Moreover, sometimes the records technicians at NPRC goof, and send back a false negative (that can happen if the records are checked out at the time and the servicing technician doesn’t notice that fact, or otherwise errs).  A post-service legal name change, service under an alias, or the use of a different SSN (legally or otherwise) can also trigger a negative.  And as I noted previously, NPRC is allegedly tightening up their release policies.  I’d guess they sent out a few bad FOIA replies containing info about the wrong individual (that’s happened on at least one FOIA reply I received) and that tightening up policy is their remedy.

Bottom line:  a records “hit” is fairly conclusive.  A “miss” is just that:  a miss.  Unless you had a known correct and complete name and SSNand are certain that the individual used that exact name and SSN their entire life, including during any service in the military – a records miss is NOT definitive proof of that the individual did not serve.  And even if you had the correct name and SSN and the individual served under than name and SSN, sometime the techs at NPRC goof.  They’re human, too.

7.  However, if a guy/gal says that NPRC can’t find them because their personnel records or decorations are “classified”, that’s pure bovine excrement.  Operations may be classified, but personnel records are not.

Virtually the only classified items found in military personnel records are an occasional classified evaluation – and classified items are very rare.  (Evals also aren’t something you can get information about with a FOIA request.)  Everything else in an OMPF is virtually always unclassified; a placeholder is there in the individual’s records when a classified item that normally should be there is stored elsewhere.  And the placeholder indicates what that item is – e.g., a statement to the effect that the individual has a classified eval.

Decorations aren’t classified.  The justification and/or circumstances surrounding an award might be, but the fact of the decoration itself isn’t.  Ditto for the orders announcing it and the citation.  Those are all unclassified.

8.  I’m not absolutely certain about this, but FOIA inquiries concerning Navy and USMC records for recently discharged veterans seem to me to take a bit longer than others.  While NPRC has archive responsibility for all veteran’s records, since the early 2000s the services have maintained electronic records vice on paper.  The Army gives NPRC access to theirs (I think the Air Force does too) for the purpose of FOIA requests concerning veterans.  The USMC and Navy may not; NPRC sometimes seems to send a FOIA request to the Navy or USMC for action if/when they get a “hit” on recent Navy and USMC records.  Or something else may be going on, or I could be in error.  But that’s my impression.

9.  On very rare occasions, records at NPRC may be incomplete.  This is very rarely the case, but it can happen.  Be careful about publicly “outing” someone who actually has other documentation backing their claims.  If possible, get a copy of that other documentation and have someone who knows what “right looks like” from the time in question take a look at it first.  And if you can’t find anyone who knows what “right looks like” from a particular era, well, TAH often can.  (smile)

Fake documents are usually pretty obvious to someone who knows what “right looks like”.  Lord knows, fake documents appear to be common when it comes to award certificates and DD214s.

10.  Claims that “my records were burned up in the fire” are also likewise BS for virtually anyone who was discharged after the Vietnam War ended – or who served in the Navy or USMC, regardless of when they served.  The NPRC fire occurred in July 1973; it affected almost exclusively records from the Army and USAF.

The records affected by the fire were:

  • Army:  personnel discharged between 1 November 1912 and 1 January 1960 – estimated 80% loss
  • USAF:  personnel discharged between 25 September 1947 and 1 January 1964, with names beginning after “Hubbard, James E.” – estimated 75% loss
  • Virtually no Navy or USMC records were affected by the fire.  The NPRC fire did not affect the portion of the building housing USN and USMC records.  While the precise number is not known, the best estimate of Navy and USMC records affected is that less than 3 dozen USN/USMC records might have been affected (it’s not definitively known that any were; that figure is an upper limit).  These were records that had been removed from normal storage and which might have been in analysts’ desks in the area affected by the fire at the time that the fire occurred.  No Navy or USMC personnel records in routine storage at NPRC were affected.
  • Not all records affected by the fire were destroyed.  Many records were damaged, but were not total losses.  (As I said in an earlier article:  I’ve seen at least one FOIA where the copies of documents from an individual’s records provided with the reply appeared to be singed or burned at the edges.)  A surprising number of records were damaged but were at least partially recovered after the fire.
  • Finally, many individual OMPFs that were lost have been at least partially reconstructed from alternate records sources.

I’ll have more info on the fire in a future article.

Bottom line:  claims that an individual’s records were “destroyed in the fire” are virtually always BS. It’s definitely BS if they were discharged after December 1963, or if they served in the Navy or USMC.  Such claims usually don’t even qualify as a “nice try” when you start asking questions.

11.  Claims that “my records were lost” are similarly almost always bogus.  Do lost records occur?  On rare occasions, yes.  But NPRC stores approximately 57 million military records today (plus over 40 million personnel files relating to former Federal civilian employees).  The odds of that being the case for someone making wild claims of derring-do that are otherwise unsubstantiated and can’t be otherwise documented are, frankly, so close to nil as to be laughable.  And as the 1973 records fire shows, lost records can generally be substantially recovered from other sources.  For starters, DFAS keeps pretty good records of who they paid.  (smile)

12.  Finally:  the articles I’ve written here apply only to veterans who’ve been discharged from all components of the military or who have retired.  If you’re dealing with someone who’s currently serving in the military (either full-time or in the reserve components, including the National Guard), the rules on what you can and cannot find out using a FOIA request are quite different.  The process described above won’t work reliably for those who are still active or reserve military; at best you’ll get a partial answer, and you might get no answer at all.   They also may or may not work if someone has been discharged from active service but still has a military service obligation and is technically still a member of the IRR.  (I think they’ll work under that last scenario, but I’m not positive.)

I don’t have a clue as to how to do a FOIA request for information about someone who’s still serving – or what can be released.  All I know is that the process – and rules about what can be released – are very different.

. . . 

Well, that’s it.  I hope the articles in this series have been helpful.  Lord knows, there are enough fakes out there that everyone working to expose them could use help.

Category: The FOIA Process

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Thank you again Hondo for all the hard work. I kept them in PDF Reader.


TREMENDOUSLY helpful and great reading. Bravo Zulu, Hondo.


Very well done, Honda. Grade- A+!

Just An Old Dog

Spot on.
The only thing that I would put in is that there are probably more than a few people that get outed that did serve and there was a negative hit on. They will gladly show off a legit honorable discharge but balk at letting out any other info because it will show every thing else is a lie.

Joe Williams

Thank You Hondo. Sharp Hand Salute to you. Joe


[…] Interpreting the Results and Miscellaneous Thoughts: […]


Nicely done Hondo. A note on National Guard and Reserve records as they relate to NPRC. If you went to Basic Training, which is required for the Guard and Reserves, you will have a 214 and NPRC will have your records. Also, if you enlist in either of the Reserve components you will be transferred to the Federal component (USAFR or USAR) for you IRR time. I have been in both and when I submitted for my records a few years back NPRC had everything including my ARNG records. State military departments may also maintain them, but NPRC should always have the original set too. At least since 87 when my records began.