Quite often for PTSD claims, and many other claims of any diagnosis type needing to be linked to military
service, the VA will ask the veteran to "prove" that a certain primary stressor or incident occurred for claims with insufficient, inadequate or lost
SMR treatment records. Many veterans may give up their claim at this point because they don't know how to even get
this information. Buddy letters specific to your condition or onset of your disability are great to help prove a claim,
but if many of you are like me, you have a hard time recalling the "real" names of those buddies, in my case we used nicknames for each other, so
don't know how to contact them to get this letter.
Another way to document your disability may be through military unit historical documents that can, even partially, help "prove" that a certain incident occurred that you are trying to document for your claim. You can do this by sending an FOIA request (or VCAA request through the VA) to the NARA (FOIA Officer, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, NGC-Room 3110, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001) requesting specific information by battalion/squadron-sized military unit, ARC Identifier, Record Group and time period.
Although these records are available for most military wars and conflicts, they are not available for an FOIA request until declassified (seems to be after 12-20 years from date of record) so may not be yet available for Desert Shield/Storm or GWOT BUT will be available for Vietnam, Korea, WWII, etc. Also, the NARA has non-combat/war records also that may help you if the documentation you need does not pertain to combat or war service.
For the rest of this post I will concentrate on getting these records as pertains to Vietnam, but if you need military unit records for other time periods, do your own search for these NARA records you might need (e.g. <unit type> <conflict/other identifier> as search term, i.e. Artillery Korea OR Infantry Ft. Dix) at the URL http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/index.html. That will give you the ARC Identifier and Record Group to use in your FOIA/VCAA request to narrow down the search time by NARA to get you these records.
Unit records (text, graphics and photo) for Vietnam are part of Record Group 472 (Records of the U.S. Forces in Southeast Asia, 1950 - 1976). Within this Record Group are ARC Identifiers that point to subsets of this vast record collection by specific unit types (Infantry, Artillery, Armor, etc.). Within these ARC Identifiers for Vietnam records you will typically find unit records that cover unit history during the period 1965-1973 and some useful ARC Identifiers I provide you further below will "…consists of the operational records of the U.S. Army battalion/squadron-sized and smaller … units who fought in the Vietnam War. These records may include organizational histories, intelligence reports, intelligence summaries, operational reports-lessons learned, command reports, newspaper clippings, photographs, daily journals, situation reports, accident reports, general orders, and operation planning records. Generally, these records reflect the activities of the units themselves and not individuals within the units. Personal names are usually not included in these records, except in the case of general orders. …"
Some specific Vietnam ARC Identifiers that may be useful to many on this board are:
ARC Identifier: 1224999 - Infantry Unit Records - 1270 legal archive boxes at NARA
ARC Identifier: 305394 - Artillery Unit Records - 1073 legal archive boxes at NARA
ARC Identifier: 1227206 - Armor Unit Records - 47 legal archive boxes at NARA
ARC Identifier: 1254472 - Cavalry Unit Records - 417 legal archive boxes at NARA
ARC Identifier: 1257114 - Engineer Unit Records - 1062 legal archive boxes at NARA
ARC Identifier: 1251857 - Aviation Unit Records - 747 legal archive boxes at NARA
ARC Identifier: 1257349 - Medical Unit Records - 429 legal archive boxes at NARA
If your unit type is not in the list just above, see the paragraph further above where I indicate how you can do your own search by unit type (i.e. search for "Maintenance Vietnam" if you served in a maintenance battalion).
When preparing your FOIA or VCAA request YOU MUST provide enough specificity in your request to make sure you only get the records you need so you won't abuse the request or you may get nothing. I suggest you can do that by indicating your request is only for records pertaining to the specific battalion/squadron-sized unit you served in, the ARC Identifier, the Record Group and the inclusive period of time you served in that unit. For example, I served with both 3/13th FA and ¾ CAV (as an attached FO/AO) in 25th ID during the period April '69 to Nov '70. I was wounded in Oct '69 and treated by both the 25th Medical Battalion and 12th Evacuation Hospital. My FOIA request letter might read as follows:
"I am writing to you to obtain records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to assist me with documenting a claim for disability service-connection through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Please provide me ALL records under ARC Identifier 305394, Record Group 472 for 3rd Battalion 13th Field Artillery, 25th Infantry Division during the time period April '69 to November '70 inclusive to help me document my claim. I will also need ALL records under ARC Identifier 1254472, Record Group 472 for 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division during the time period June '69 to May '70 inclusive since I was also attached to that unit during that timeframe. Finally, I would like to obtain ALL unit records under ARC Identifier 1257349, Record Group 472 for BOTH the 25th Medical Battalion and the 12th Evacuation Hospital during the time period October-November '69 inclusive since I was treated by those medical units during that time period and they may contain records specific to any treatment/admission to those medical units by service personnel as well as help identify those medical sub-units/doctor command structure during that period. If your office keeps any other records of a medical nature that would in your opinion be helpful in documenting disability claims, please notify me of the ARC Identifiers and Record Groups containing these records so that I may do further research to determine if I need to make an additional FOIA request for those records."
You should NOT write your request for a smaller sized unit than battalion/squadron-sized since if you do, you will typically not get any general orders that way that would have helped you to identify "buddies" through award, reassignment or DEROS orders that would have been cut at the battalion/squadron level and NARA would have included. These general orders may help you to find these buddies through the Internet or other sources and thus further perfect your claim.
Do not be surprised if the NARA asks you to pay for the copying and search costs (not sure if they will or not - may not because it is to support a VA claim - see the edit below for the URL that outlines fees if they do). If you have a current claim with the VA in process where the VCAA provisions would be in play with having VA with an obligation to assist you in obtaining documentation, you can use this VCAA obligation to have VA ask for these records from the NARA instead of you asking through an FOIA request and would most probably negate any copying or search costs to you. However, this will probably lengthen the time to your claim decision (may be a moot point because without the unit record info for your claim "proof", your claim might probably be denied).
Hope this helps some vets. Haven't done it myself because haven't needed to but should work with what FOIA says it can be used for.
EDIT: Here is the NARA FOIA Request Guide: http://www.archives.gov/foia/foia-guide.html. If making a VCAA request it may not apply and you should make your request through the VARO, NOT NARA.
GULF WAR EDIT: Thanks to a post by bejay28, Gulf War veterans may wish to search the following site for unit record information: http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/search/