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ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. government officials have decided to preserve forever the personnel files of every military member since 1885, and to allow public access to such records 62 years after official discharge or separation.

An agreement designating these files as permanent records was signed Thursday by Archivist of the United States John Carlin and David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The National Archives and Records Administration will maintain the records forever, according to Greg Pomicter, assistant for operations in the NARA’s Office of Regional Records Services.

Protecting personnel files is crucial because they contain the legal documents veterans and their families need in order to claim entitlements that may have accrued from military service, Pomicter said in a telephone interview Monday from NARA’s Suitland, Md., headquarters.

Before the agreement was signed, the U.S. government would release only basic information, such as dates of service. Only the member himself, if alive, or next-of-kin if the member was dead, had access to the entire file, Pomicter said.

Under the new policy, the public will have access to records 62 years after a servicemember’s official discharge or separation — “a wealth of information” that will appeal to a variety of individuals, Pomicter said.

After a six-month survey of records requests, archivists found that the nature of requests moved from administrative to historical between 56 years and 62 years after the servicemember’s separation, and went with the higher number to be safe.

People searching for genealogical data will find that the records “give you a tremendous amount of family history,” Pomicter said.

Personnel files contain such things as medical information, performance reports and disciplinary actions, as well as birth, marriage and death records, and adoption records and visas.

Academics and other researchers will be able to use the records to reconstruct all sorts of information, such as the demographic composition of a specific military unit and how it has changed over time, Pomicter said.

But if a servicemember is still alive after 62 years, the Privacy Act of 1974 allows NAR officials to redact, or black out, certain information, such as Social Security numbers, Pomicter said.

“If we have any indication that person is alive, we’ll be very careful what’s released … to ensure that there’s no unwarranted invasion of a person’s privacy,” Pomicter said.

It will take at least a decade for government archivists to transfer all 56 million eligible records to the public domain.

That’s because before 1960, DOD did not necessarily file its personnel records by date of discharge, requiring archivists to sort through the jackets one-by-one to discern whether they meet the 62-year age requirement, Pomicter said.

The first major block of files — nearly 1 million records for sailors and Marines that date back to World War I — will be released this fall, Pomicter said.

To learn how to search records maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, including records that have been archived electronically, go to:

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