By Greg Dahl, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Fall 2017

We take time each November 11th to recognize the commitment and sacrifice of the men and women who risked their lives as members of our armed forces. In the spirit of Veteran’s Day, it is worth taking a moment to discuss an obstacle to obtaining veteran’s benefits for older veterans that may be overlooked by those unfamiliar with the process.

It is no secret that veterans of World War II and the Korean War have reached an advanced age. A veteran who was 18 years old in 1946 (the last year of the WWII period recognized by the government) will have turned 89 by the end of this year. A veteran who was 18 in the last year of the Korean War period (1955) will have turned 80 by the end of this year. Veteran’s benefits administered by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA), may be able to help qualifying veterans with some of the medical and financial burdens associated with aging.

A veteran seeking benefits bears the responsibility of proving his or her military service. This preliminary step can sometimes prove more difficult than one would expect. Many veterans have lost their discharge documents in the decades since they received them. In addition, a fire at a government archive in 1973 destroyed the government records for many servicemen and women. As a result, the VA does not have the discharge records of most of the men and women who served in the Army during World War II or the Korean War. Most of the records of Air Force veterans from a comparable period (1947-1960), starting with the last name “Hubbard” and going alphabetically through “Z” were also destroyed. Most records for veterans who served in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard during this period survived the fire.

Fortunately, there are ways to prove a veteran’s service to the VA even if the formal records are lost. Assembling any kind of documentation that mentions a person’s service is useful. This may include tax records, medals or other commendations, photos of the veteran in uniform, or newspaper clippings that mention the veteran’s military service.[1] If the veteran served in a National Guard unit, state records may still exist.

Another method is to prepare a “Statement in Support of Claim,[2]” known informally as a “buddy affidavit.” A buddy affidavit is a sworn statement by a person who served with the veteran and who can attest to his military service. In addition, it may be worth checking with the National Archives[3] to request a copy of the veteran’s records, as not all records from this period were destroyed.

Proving a veteran’s military service can be more complicated than one would expect, but it can also be a rewarding way of learning more about a relative’s military service and of developing a deeper appreciation for the men and women who have served our country in the uniformed services.

[1] Ryan Guina. “How to Prove Military Service – Official Military Documents, Forms, and Other Ways to Prove You Served.” https://themilitarywallet.com/prove-military-service/

[2] Family of a Vet.com “What Makes a Good ‘Buddy Letter?’” http://familyofavet.com/good_buddy_letter.html

[3] National Archives. “Request Your Military Service Records Online, by Mail, Or by Fax.” https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records