Ever wonder what happened to old-what’s-his-name who was stationed with you twenty-five years ago? Or how about the sergeant who kept you going through boot camp? Maybe you would like to plan a reunion for your fellow cadets but don’t have a clue where they all are now.
There are many different ways to search for someone. On-line, I can look up John Smith and Jane Doe and find their names, addresses, phone numbers, ages, places of employment, and even maps to their homes! Facebook, Twitter, and other on-line gatherings also offer ways to connect with comrades. Easy? Definitely. Accurate? Not always. Safe? No, not for you nor for the person you are seeking.
There are two ways that are easy, accurate, and legal to trace veterans. Both of them comply with the Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. 552a) and the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552).
The Freedom of Information Act requires that the Federal Executive Branch has to make all records created by, received by, in possession of, or under the control of a federal agency available to the public. Don’t panic, there are nine exclusions, including personal information about a living person. This is the reason you cannot call up the VA and demand to know where old Major Fred Brown now resides. Old Major Fred Brown must give the agency written permission to reveal any information about himself to you.
All personal information is stored by specific characteristics. In order to retrieve such information, databases use things called “personal identifiers”. Store clerks often ask for your phone number. Filed under this identifier is your name, address, and often age range. Credit card companies file your info under your social security number or your account number. Medical records are often filed under your insurance number. Driver’s licenses, birthdates, mother’s maiden name – all these personal identifiers help databases retrieve information. Great, right? No. Not everyone has the right to view all of my personal information. And the Privacy Act of 1974 guarantees this – if said information is being held by a federal agency. Records held by courts, executive components and non-agency government entities do not have to comply with this rule. Plus, there are twelve exceptions by which personal information held by a federal government can be released without your written consent, including statistical purposes, historical importance, law enforcement purposes, and congressional investigations.
So, we are back to your legal right to maintain your privacy and your ability to trust federal agencies with personal information. But you still want to find your friend.
The VA will help, but success is not guaranteed. Write the letter you want to your veteran; put it in an unsealed stamped envelope. Write another letter to the VA explaining who you are trying to contact and as much information you can remember in order to help the VA track this veteran down. Put the letter and the stamped envelope in a larger envelope and mail it to your nearest Regional Veterans Administration office. Look for that address in the blue pages of your phone book.
Another way to find an old acquaintance – a woman veteran – is to go to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial page and click on their ‘In Search of’ site. You will need to register before posting an ISO or a reunion or convention notice. The notices are placed monthly under the specific military branches and moved to archives each quarter. Glance at them – maybe someone is looking for you! There is an online submission form which makes the whole process incredibly easy.
Now, a word of caution: this is a world of scams and con artists. Don’t put information out there that will place you in the position of victim. ‘Discretion is the better part of valor.’
However, it sure would be nice to hear from an old friend, wouldn’t it? Someone who served in the trenches with you, someone who knew you before you lost your baby fat, someone who saved your life as often as you saved his. Utilize one of these two paths – they are easy, legal, and safe.