Research Tip of the Week

This week the research tip of the week is about using military discharge documents in genealogy research.

Military service generates a lot of records. Many of the documents can be valuable in genealogy. One valuable information source is a DD214.

The DD214 has been in use by all branches of the U.S. Armed Services since 1950. It is a certificate of discharge from active duty and is a summary of the individuals service while in the military. The simple one-page document is a treasure trove of information.

Recently I received a copy of my Grandfather’s DD214 from his service in the Korean War. As I looked at my Grandfather’s DD214 I realized that not everyone understands how to read the document or what information is on the form.

DD214’s can be obtained as part of the military service record from the National Archives

This week’s tip is a crash course in reading a DD214 for family history research.

Over the course of the document’s history the DD214 has been updated and changed to collect different information but most basic details you can expect to find on a DD214 regardless of version. I decided to sit down and compare two DD214’s issued nearly 60 years apart to see how they are the same and how they have changed.

Details found on early and recent versions of the DD214 include:

Name of service member

Branch of service

Type of separation

Character of service

Date of enlistment

Date of discharge

Time spent deployed

Medals earned during service

Rank at time of enlistment

Rank at time of discharge

Nearest relative

Address at time of entry into service

Address at time of separation

Place of separation

Duty station at time of separation

Unit of service (for early versions this is most significant unit, for later versions it is the last unit)

Military schools attended and date

Earlier versions of the document may include details such as physical description. The 1953 DD214 for my Grandfather shows that he had brown hair, blue eyes, stood 73” tall, and weighed 185lbs. It also details his level of education, and his employment prior to the service. Modern versions of the DD214 do not include a physical description, the education spot is just a box to check if graduated high school, and there is no mention of field of employment prior to entry into service.

Here is a scan of my grandfather’s DD214. By looking at the bottom left corner I can see that this is in fact his DD214 and I can see that this version of the form went into use starting June 1953.

What does all this information translate into for the family history researcher? The answer is a lot, if you know how to read what you are looking at. It can also be a confusing document full of easily misunderstood terms if you don’t know what you are looking at.

Breaking down the facts:

Box 1 is the name of the service member in all version of the document. All information on the document relates to the service of the individual named in this box.

On the early version of the DD214 the character of separation and department are at the top of the document above the name field. In this case it was an honorable discharge from the department of the Army.

Box 2 is the member’s service number.

Box 3 is the rank at time of discharge and the date that rank was attained. In this case my Grandfather received his final promotion in rank on June 23, 1953.

Box 4 tells me that he served in the RA INF. This stands for Regular Army Infantry.

Box 6 details the date of separation. December 23, 1953.

Box 7 is type of separation. Discharge.

Box 8 provides further details about the type of separation. In this case it states AR615-365 & SEC VI SR615-360-5 (PETS) which means he was released from duty prior to the end of his term of service because he was no longer needed. The Korean War had reached a ceasefire. Here is a great resource for looking up early discharge codes.

Box 9 is the place of separation. Ft George Meade, Maryland.

Box 10 is the date of birth.

Box 11 is the place of birth.

Box 12 is a physical description.

Box 13- 16 detail information about selective service registration.

Box 17 and 18 describe details about the entry into the service. In this case it was enlistment for a term of 3 years, and he entered the service as an E-1 private.

Box 19 and 20 supply the date and place of enlistment and his home address at the time of entry.

Box 21-24 provide details about how his service was spent. It says that the term of service was 2 years 11 months and 24 days.

Box 26 describes the amount of time spent deployed. 11 months and 17 days in foreign service or sea duty.

Box 27 has a list of medals, awards, badges, campaign ribbons, etc. the individual has earned during their time in service. In this case the awards listed are Combat Infantry Badge, United Nations Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and the Korean Service Medal with 2 bronze stars.

Here is a great article about the difference between the Bronze Star Medal and Bronze Campaign Stars.

Box 28 is the most significant duty assignment. He served in the SVC company of the 179 Infantry Korea.

Box 29 details injuries received because of combat. Thankfully, he received none.

Box 30 holds information about schools attended during service. The QM stands for Quartermaster. He attended cooking school from June to July 1951 at Ft Meade, MD.

Box 31 – 40 details information on pay, insurance, administrative data.

Box 41- 43 has information about civilian employment prior to service. My Grandfather was a farm hand for his father in Landisburg, WV from 1946 – 1950.

Box 44 shows he was a citizen of the United States.

Box 45 – 46 describes his education and marital status. He was single and had a 7th grade education.

Create a timeline

From a genealogical standpoint the details on a DD214 can be pure gold. This document provides a snapshot of life with details from both before and during his time in the service.

1946-1950 At home with his parents on the family farm

1950 Enlisted in Army

1951 Quartermaster school at Ft Meade, Maryland

1953 Discharge

The information in blocks 27 and 28 provide information on the 11 months of overseas service. He served with the 179th Infantry in Korea. The 2 bronze stars on his Korean Service Medal show he served for more than one tour. The fact that he had a combat infantry badge shows at some point he engaged with hostile forces. I could then use this information to learn more about the service of the 179th in Korea.

For a simple one-page form document the DD214 can be a treasure trove of genealogical information. All service members are issued a DD214 when they exit military service dating back to the year 1950. Knowing what a DD214 is and how to read the document can provide great details into the individuals years of service.