The Depot

Military Memories: How to Preserve Your Family's Military History

Black Felt Memorabilia Shadow Box with medals ribbons and a folded flag

If you’re a veteran of the military and served within the last 30 years, you are fortunate from the standpoint that your military service is likely digitized and stored electronically by the federal government. Years ago, this wasn’t the case and the government maintained hard copy documents.

In the 1970s, millions of veteran service records were destroyed in a fire at the national personnel records center making it harder for families of veterans to collect their loved one’s military memories and recreate them for safekeeping. The loss of these historical documents dealt a huge blow to veterans trying to capture their military memories for posterity.

However, if you are a family member trying to assemble a loved one’s military history, you can likely succeed in assembling their military memories by following a few simple steps. First, ask yourself, what is your goal?

If you are trying to collect information about someone’s military service solely for your family’s personal knowledge then a great place to start might be with the veteran. Veterans will be able to elaborately share details of their military memories and they might have documents and other memorabilia from their time in the military that can help you reconstruct their service. This will enable you to orally share anecdotes to the rest of the family about the person’s military service.

If your goal is to capture military memories in something tangible like a shadowbox, talk to veteran about what he or she has. It is possible that maybe the veteran has documentation showing that they earned particular awards or were a part of a significant historical military event, but they lack the physical awards. If that is the case, with proper documentation, replacement awards can be ordered from the federal government or purchased online.

It could also be the case that the veterans have the actual awards or mementos from their military service, but the lack the documentation. In that case, records can be requested from the service branches to help you assemble a veteran’s military memories.

It is important to note that the longer a person lives, the more clouded a person’s memory can get. That’s why it is important for families who are interested in preserving military memories to use as much official documentation as possible to help their veterans and family reconstruct the person’s military memories.

That said, it is important to understand that military service, especially in earlier times, was a bit more fluid than today. For example, your great uncle might talk about military memories that include him getting a battlefield commission, that is, getting promoted from the enlisted ranks to the officer ranks during combat. That hasn’t happened in decades, but those types of things did happen and they are certainly a part of someone’s military memories.

Similarly, a person could have performed duties as a translator even though they were a mechanic if they spoke a language that was needed at a particular duty assignment. It is plausible that one of your family member’s military memories includes being an Italian translator when Italian forces were captured in World War II because Italian happened to be his native tongue. And maybe one of his fondest military memories is when a general pinned a medal on him for doing that job in WWII.

When it comes to preserving military memories for a family, the key is to have an objective and then collect as much information and as many items as possible. Shadowboxes are great for displays, but they are also a good place to store the awards. They don’t have to be displayed, but they are a great place to safely keep military memories.