This is a post by guest blogger Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, CGSM.
As researchers of Vietnam-era veterans, we are fortunate. We can often capture the first-person experiences and stories of the veteran. As researchers, we also face challenges. Many records for Vietnam-era veterans are closed to the general public. Here is some background and resources to help you with this type of research.
The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that for the years 1955–1975, there were 2.5 million Americans who served in South Vietnam; 3.4 million who served in Southeast Asia; and 8.7 million who served worldwide.
According to Tom Hall with the Vietnam Veterans of America, the average age of the entry into service for the Vietnam War was 19. The average age for entry into service for World War II was 26. The ages of those killed in action ranged from 15 to 63 according to the Wall-USA. Hall brings out an important point:
“Every Vietnam veteran’s experience was different because of the time, geographical area served, their unit’s mission, and occupational field.”
We are in danger of losing the unique stories of our Vietnam-era veterans. The range of ages for these veterans is generally from 59 to 100 according to the infographic from Fold3.
From a 2009 thread on the Leatherneck.com forum:
The following are some statistics that are at once depressing yet in a larger sense should give you a huge sense of pride.
“Of the 2,709,918 Americans who served in Vietnam, Less than 850,000 are estimated to be alive today, with the youngest American Vietnam veteran’s age approximated to be 54 years old.” How does it feel to be among the last third of all the Vietnam Veterans who served in Vietnam to be alive?
I don’t know about you guys, but it kind of gives me the chills.
Considering the kind of information available about the death rate of WWII and Korean War Veterans, publicized information indicates that in the last 14 years Vietnam veterans are dying at the rate of 390 deaths each day.
At this rate there will be only a few of us alive in 2015.
These statistics were taken from a variety of sources to include: The VFW Magazine, the Public Information Office, and the HQ CP Forward Observer.
Researching and Recording Their Stories
As genealogists, it is our duty to capture and to preserve these singular stories of our Vietnam-era vets.
We need to conduct and record interviews not only with the veterans, but also with:
- Members of the family of the veteran;
- Men and women that served at the same time, in the same geographic area, in the same unit
- Classmates and friends from high school or college.
If you need help developing the questions for your interviews, see page 4 of the Field Kit for the Veterans History Project, The are five areas for the interview questions: biographical details; early days of service; wartime service; war’s end/coming home; and reflections.
A rule of thumb in genealogy is to begin your research at home. This is especially important when one is researching Vietnam veterans. Records used to research veterans from other eras are open records. Because of concerns about a veteran’s right to privacy most records are closed for Vietnam-era veterans.
For instance, Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) are commonly-used sources for researching military veterans. The OMPFs for military personnel that served from 1955–1975 are Non-Archival Records. Unless you are the veteran or the next-of-kin the National Personal Records Center (NPRC) can only release limited information to the general public.
Begin with an attic-to-basement search for letters, photographs, documents, and artifacts. Your Vietnam-era vet probably has a copy of his/her Report of Separation somewhere in the house or in a safety-deposit box. Issued since 1 January 1950, the Defense Department Form 214 (DD Form 214) is a document issued by the Department of Defense upon a military service member’s separation or discharge from the active duty military and contains information about the person’s service, including units, promotions, and awards.
Unit Histories. With the information from the DD Form 214, we can request copies of the unit histories of all units in which the individual served.
- Air Force: Air Force Historical Research Agency
- Army: U.S. Army Center of Military History
- Coast Guard: United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office
- Marines: United States Marine Corps History Division
- Navy: Naval History and Heritage Command
Veterans Organizations. Contact local veterans’ organizations like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and ask for a copy of the membership application and supporting documentation. Also, members of the local American Legion or VFW might have stories or photographs about your Vietnam-era veteran.
Ask family members if they have letters from the Vietnam-era veteran. If we are fortunate enough to locate letters, ask for permission to either photograph or copy the letters.
Search the Web for reunions of the unit or the ship of your Vietnam-era vet. Make contact with the reunion organizers, explain that you are interested in learning about your veteran from anyone that might have served with him/her, and grant permission for the organizers to share your contact information.
Collections on Ancestry
Vietnam War, Awards and Decorations of Honor, 1965-1972.This collection contains information about awards and decorations of honor awarded to U.S. and allied foreign military personnel during the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1972. It does not represent all awards and decorations presented for duties performed in Vietnam.
U.S., Vietnam War Military Casualties, 1956-1998. This database contains information on U.S. servicemen who died in Southeast Asia as a result of the Vietnam War, including individuals who died from both hostile and non-hostile incidents, as well as individuals who died while Missing in Action (MIA) or while as a Prisoner of War (POW). Note that some of the dates are not actually death dates, but the dates in which MIA or POW soldiers were officially declared deceased. Be certain to read the full description of this collection (available at the bottom of the search page).
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010. This collection from the Beneficiary Identification Records Locater Subsystem (BIRLS) contains birth and death dates for more than 14 million veterans and VA beneficiaries who died between the years 1850 and 2010.
U.S. Veterans Gravesites, ca. 1775-2006. This collection contains information on those who are buried in Veterans Administration-run national cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, and other military cemeteries.
U.S. Navy Cruise Books, 1918–2009. Cruise books are like yearbooks and are published to commemorate a deployment.
Fold3 features the interactive Vietnam Veterans Memorial, available for free. The memorial features high-resolution photographs of each name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. You can also leave remembrances about those who are listed, as well as read the remembrances of others.
This post is part of our Veterans Day series highlighting American service members that helped shape our great country. Follow the series each day from November 5-11, 2014.
Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, CGSM is a full-time professional researcher specializing in Chicago and Cook County research, problem solving, and multi-generational family histories. On behalf of the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force, Jeanne searches for and identifies family members of unaccounted for servicemen from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam era her father, LTC Robert (“Bob”) Leland Larzalere (Ret), served with the 195th Engineer Group (Const), Kansas Army National Guard.