How to replace your or a relative's military medals

A Purple Heart medal.


By LIANA BAYNE | The Roanoke Times, Va. | Published: May 27, 2013

On Memorial Day, we honor those who died while serving in the United States military. Some of the service medals they earned have also been lost over the years. But those decorations do not have to be lost forever — it is possible to have them replaced by following a few steps.

Depending on the veteran’s branch of service, how long ago he or she served and the exact relationship of the requester to the veteran, there are different procedures for getting service records and replacement decorations.

Requesting a copy of a veteran’s service records is the best way to find out what medals the veteran was awarded.

If you want to know which medals, ribbons and decorations your vet is entitled to, you’ll need a copy of the discharge papers, also known as a DD Form 214, which is part of the veteran’s Official Military Personnel File, known as OMPF.

You can request a copy of the form online or by mail.

What you need on hand

According to the National Archives site, archives.gov, there are several pieces of personal information that you need to submit when requesting records:

  • The veteran’s complete name used while in service
  • Service number
  • Social Security number
  • Branch of service
  • Dates of service
  • Date and place of birth (especially if the service number is not known)

If the records you seek were destroyed in the July 1973 fire, which decimated between 16 million and 18 million Army and Air Force service records at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo. , you will need to supply additional information.

About 80 percent of Army records for people discharged between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan. 1, 1960, along with about 75 percent of Air Force members discharged between Sept. 25, 1947, and Jan. 1, 1964, with last names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E., were destroyed. There were no back up records , but the records can be reconstructed from other records provided that you know these other pieces of information:

  • Place of discharge
  • Last unit of assignment
  • Place of entry into the service, if known

All requests must be signed and dated by the veteran or next-of-kin.

If you are the next of kin of a deceased veteran, you must provide proof of the vet’s death , such as a copy of the death certificate, a letter from a funeral home or a published obituary.

There’s also information that is not required but is recommended to help locate your records, according to Archives.gov.:

  • The purpose or reason for your request
  • Any deadlines related to your request, especially if it’s on an emergency schedule because of events such as an upcoming surgery or funeral

Getting copies of federal, non archival records should not cost anything , according to the National Archives.

Archival records do have associated costs — $25 for a record five or fewer pages long, and $70 for a record six or more pages long.

According to the National Archives, OMPFs become archival 62 years after the servicemember’s separation from the military. That is a rolling date. For example, the current year, 2013, minus 62 years is 1951. Therefore, records with a discharge date of 1951 or prior are archival and are open to the public.

For more information on how each military branch decides what’s archival, check out the Archive's Office of Personnel files website. It says the Army will give archival requests to next-of-kin at no cost, but all other branches will charge.

Once you have a copy of the DD Form 214 and personnel file, it will tell you which medals, ribbons and decorations the veteran is entitled to.

If you’re a veteran, you can either make a request online or write to your branch of service, and the branch will send your medals directly.

For the next-of-kin

Next-of-kin is defined differently for varying branches.

For the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, next-of-kin is defined as the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister of the veteran.

For the Army, next-of-kin is defined as the surviving spouse, eldest child, father or mother, eldest sibling or eldest grandchild of the veteran.

If you don’t fall into the next-of-kin category, says the National Archives, and the veteran left the military before 1952, you may purchase a copy of the veteran’s Official Military Personnel File as a member of the general public to determine the awards due and obtain the medals from a commercial source.

If the veteran left the military after 1951, the public may request such information via the Freedom of Information Act. For more on using that act to get the OMPF, check out this site.

For all the fine details on getting your medals replaced, check out the National Archive’s website. You can also watch a fun video that explains the basics in three minutes.