The FOIA Process: Part 5 – So, What Will I Get?

| February 6, 2014

What you will get, sooner or later, is a reply to your FOIA request.  (If you don’t, you need to refile it!)

Yeah, I know:  “No sh!t, Sherlock – I figured that much out already.”  (smile)

Seriously – what you will get in the reply to a FOIA inquiry varies.  I’m going to discuss a few common responses you might get from the National Personnel Records Center.  I’m not going to attempt to discuss replies from state National Guard FOIA offices, as (1) I haven’t submitted many of those, and (2) from the few replies I’ve seen, their formats seem to vary.

And on occasion, I still get replies in formats, or with things attached, that I’ve never seen before.  So what follows is definitely not comprehensive.

What You Won’t Get

First, let’s discuss what you won’t get.

You won’t get the individual’s complete OMPF unless they authorized you in writing to receive it (or they’re dead and you’re their next of kin).  The only pertinent exception here is if the record is more than 62 years old (e.g., they’ve been completely discharged from he military for 62 years or longer).  Then, supposedly you get a copy of the individual’s complete file – but you’ll have to pay a fee (see the previous article).

You also won’t in general get anything containing an individual’s PII (e.g., SSN, home of record address, etc . . . ).  Any documents you receive that originally contained PII/other non-releasable information will have that info redacted.  Or at least that info is supposed to be redacted; on rare occasions, NPRC misses something they should redact.  Their clerks are human, after all.

You also won’t get a complete DD214 showing characterization of service and/or reentry codes and “lost time”.  You may (or may not) get a copy of the individual in question’s DD214 (FOIA replies concerning Navy and USMC personnel sometimes seem to include one) – but if so it will have that information redacted.  For some reason, the type of discharge, reentry code, and lost time isn’t considered public record information.  (IMO that info should be publicly releasable, but it’s not.)

What You Will Get

What you will get is a transcription or photocopy (or some of each) of the publicly-releasable information that is contained in the copy of the individual’s OMPF stored in Federal archives.  If other items are specifically requested you may – or may not – get PII-redacted copies of those other documents as well.

Don’t worry.  What you get will generally be sufficient to prove, to a reasonable degree of certainty, whether or not someone is making a false claim of military service, decorations, or qualifications.

In this article, with two exceptions I’ve redacted the names of individuals on documents I’ve used as examples.  The exceptions are ones that were previously posted here at TAH about people we all “know and love”.

Item 1:  The Cover Letter

For a FOIA inquiry submitted to NPRC, you should get at least a cover letter in their reply. I’d recommend keeping this – it has their internal request number on it.  You’ll need that if you decide to file a follow-up request and/or dispute their denial of some information you think is in the file and should be released to you.

The NPRC cover letter will generally be in one of three forms:

(1) A cover letter saying, in effect, “you didn’t send us enough information to find anything”.  Here’s an example.  (Most examples in this article are in Adobe PDF format.)

The key here is caveat in the first paragraph – e.g., that the reply does NOT mean the individual never served in the military.  A reply of this type is not definitive proof the individual on whom you filed the request never served in the US military.

You may get this if you didn’t send NPRC enough information to unambiguously identify the individual in question.   Reportedly NPRC has tightened up their policies recently on what constitutes “enough” information (supposedly they now require complete name,DOB, place of birth, branch of service, and approximate dates of service if SSN is not provided).  I wouldn’t be surprised if this is now their “default” reply when a request has less than the required amount of info – even if the name is something as oddball as “Christophos Constantine Cornholio Polychronopolis”.

(2)  A cover letter that strongly implies the individual never served, but doesn’t outright say that.

IMO, the key here is the part where they say they “conducted extensive searches of every records source and alternate records source at this Center” (or words to that effect).  While not a legally a “slam dunk”, to me this type of reply strongly implies that NPRC had enough information for a definitive match – and found nothing.  IMO, it means that the guy/gal more likely than not didn’t serve UNDER THAT NAME or USING THAT SSN.  However, a post-service legal name change and/or service while using another SSN might still be possible.  It’s also possible that NPRC goofed – e.g., “fat fingered” something when searching for the records.

A second, IMO stronger variant of this type of reply may say that they’ve also checked external entities like the FBI and got nothing.

However, as with the first case – this is also not by itself definitive.  You can’t necessarily rule out service under another name and/or using another SSN.  Or NPRC simply could have goofed – e.g., maybe the person doing the search misspelled the name or reversed 2 digits in the SSN or Service/Serial Number.

(3)  A cover letter saying, in effect, “we found those records”.   Obviously, this is what you want to see.  It’s definitive proof that the individual in question did serve in the US military – and that the Federal archives have records on them.  I’ve seen both one page and two-page variants of this type of letter; both are included here.

On rare occasions, the cover letter may list information about the individual’s assignments, decorations, qualifications, etc . . . . However, in general those items are provided on another attachment or on multiple attachments.

If you asked for specific items they feel they can’t send you without the veteran’s consent or proof that you’re next-of-kin, you may get this variant of NPRC cover letter.  Sometimes asking again and politely explaining that you’re asking for a PII-redacted copy of something that documents publicly-releasable information (like award orders) will help if that’s the case. But if you’re asking for something that’s not releasable to the general public – like the type of discharge – that will almost certainly be a “NO GO”.

Finally, if the records were affected by the 1973 NPRC fire, you may get a cover letter that looks like this.

These aren’t the only possible NPRC cover letters you might see; I keep seeing new versions and variants periodically.  But these or similar variants seem to cover the great majority of cases.  They (or something similar) will probably cover most replies you’ll see.

Item 2:  NA Form 13164

The second item you will see in virtually all cases when NPRC locates the records in question is National Archives Form 13164 (NA 13164).  On rare occasions, the cover letter may contain the information instead – but those are in my experience fairly rare and generally seem generally to come from other sources vice NPRC.  I’ve only seen a handful of those.

Information releasable under the FOIA will be either transcribed to the NA 13164, provided as attachments, or both.  If a person only had a single, relatively uneventful term in the military, the NA 13164 may be all you get besides a cover letter.

The NA Form 13164 looks like this.  (This is an example of where the NA 13164 is all you get besides a cover letter.)

If there are attachments, the NA Form 13164 will look like this, with one or more boxes saying “see attached” or words to that effect.  The attachments should be extra material that expands on (or contains in full) the information for the blocks indicated.

Most of the information provided on the form will be self-explanatory.  Two items that require care, however, are the “Rank/Grade” block and the “Transcript of Court Martial Trial” block.  The former is the rank at time of discharge.  While the rank in the “Rank/Grade” block is generally the highest rank or grade held (or for a retiree, their retired grade), that is not a guarantee. The individual could have served at a higher grade, but been reduced administratively or via court-martial prior to discharge; if so, that fact won’t be noted on the NA Form 13164 (it may be present in or reasonably inferable from other information provided as attachments, but there’s no guarantee that will be the case).

Secondly, an individual who served successfully as an officer but who is administratively reduced during a drawdown and reverts back to enlisted status – or who has a break in service and returns to service as an enlisted guy/gal – retires at the highest grade successfully held.  It’s thus possible for a guy/gal to have a final rank of E6 or E7 on a NA Form 13164 and legitimately retire at an officer grade.  It’s not terribly common, but it does happen.

Lastly, don’t read too much into the comments in the “Transcript of Court Martial Trial” block of the NA 13164.  Common entries are “NA” or “N/A”, “Not applicable”, “Not available”, and “Not in file”, or similar language.  They all seem to be used interchangeably.  In particular, I don’t think “Not in file” or “Not available” implies anything one way or the other about whether the individual was or was not ever tried by court-martial.  I think the term used there is generally due to the personal preference of the technician preparing the request.  Best I can tell, they all seem to mean “there’s no transcript of trial in that file” – and that’s all.

Item 3:  Attachments

Attachments to the NA 13164 are variable as hell.  Typically, they’re PII-redacted portions of documents from the individual’s OMPF – e.g., DA Form 20 or 2-1, USMC “page 3”, redacted orders/award certificates, a photograph, letters, etc . . . .   (On occasion, a USMC or USN FOIA may have a heavily redacted copy of the individual’s DD214 – see this article about the Chippendale SEAL for an example.)

Representative copies of what you might see are provided here:

Example Army attachments.  This is an unusually detailed set of Army attachments.

Example USMC attachments.  This is representative of what’s commonly provided for USMC attachments.

Example very old USAAC/USAF attachments.  Very unusual.  This file was one affected by the 1973 NPRC records fire.  I’d guess these are actually secondary records drawn from other-than-routine sources that were used to reconstruct the file after-the-fact.  (I’ve seen at least one other set of attachments where the photocopied originals literally appeared to have fire damage around the edges.)

Example Navy attachments may be seen in the link earlier in the article regarding the Chippendale SEAL.  That example shows both a redacted DD214 (sometimes the Navy and/or USMC provide one) and a typical Navy attachment.

As you can see from the above, the specific documents provided as attachments will vary from service to service, from era to era, and from request to request.  There really is no way to anticipate what will be attached to the NA Form 13164 – if anything.  I’ve seen photos and certificates of training, letters, award certificates, eval extracts (but not whole evals), and pay book entries.

In short:  the attachments to a FOIA reply are kinda like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.  You never know what you’ll get.  (smile)

. . .

That’s all for today.  The next – and last – article in the series will cover interpreting results and some other “dogs and cats” that don’t fit elsewhere.

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Thank you Hondo. I know this has been a lot of work for you.