Are You an Active or Retired Service Member? Here's How Long to Keep Your Military Records

Your military records are the most important documents for receiving your benefits

Are You an Active or Retired Service Member? Here's How Long to Keep Your Military Records
Image: Morguefile
March 3, 2017

If you are an active or retired member of the military, your military records are the most important documents you could have for receiving your benefits. Do you know how long you should keep them?

In some cases, you need to keep them forever. It is up to you to keep your records safe, and you are strongly encouraged to keep copies of them and make sure that the information contained in official military or veterans record-keeping systems is correct.

Why Are Your Military Records Important?

For active duty service members, having your military records can enable you to prove that you're entitled to an enlistment bonus (found on your enlistment/re-enlistment contract). They can make the difference between accelerated promotions in rank and a normal rate of promotion. They can mean reimbursing the government for an item you were issued and returned or providing a signed hand receipt indicating that you have returned the item.

If you're a member of the National Guard or the Reserves, your records can make the difference between being able to retire and not being able to do so. They can prove that you earned more Retirement Points than the system is showing. Your Title 10 active duty orders can also affect your eligibility for benefits, including early retirement benefits.

Are you a veteran? Your records can enable you to receive thousands of dollars' worth of benefits, such as education benefits from the GI Bill and eligibility for healthcare from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). You will also need a copy of your military discharge paperwork, such as a DD 214, if you want a military burial.

Records You Should Keep Temporarily

Keep these records only as long as they're valid.

  • Annual Training Documents. One example is a Computer Based Training Certificate. Although training systems are supposed to update your training status automatically when you take a Computer Based Training course, sometimes they don't. If this happens, you may have to re-take the course unless you can prove you already took it. Print out your training certificate to save yourself time and effort.
  • Issue Receipts. Keep any hand receipt that you sign upon taking ownership of items that need to be returned, usually equipment and gear.
  • Records Related to Your Current Assignment. Keep records such as local training requirements, local issue items, etc.
  • Other. If you think a record might be important in the short term, keep it. You can discard records when they expire, and there are certain training documents that you might no longer need if you cross-train into a new career field. Use your best judgment.

Records You Should Keep Forever

Although this list is not comprehensive, it should give you an idea of the documents you should keep copies of permanently.

  • Contracts. For example, enlistment contracts, re-enlistment, contract extensions, bonuses, promotion certificates, and your Commissioning letter.
  • Medical Records.
  • Proof of military service or separation paperwork, including DD Form 214 (Active Duty), NGB Forms 22 and 22A (Army and Air National Guard), DD Form 256 (Reserves), and other separation documents.
  • Pay and Benefits Statements (LES, mid-month pay)
  • Annual Points Statement (Guard or Reserves)
  • Retirement Paperwork.
  • 20 Year Letter (Guard or Reserves)
  • Copies of Awards and Decorations.
  • Certificate of Eligibility for VA Loan.
  • Certificate of Eligibility for GI Bill (and proof of payment for GI Bill Kicker if you bought into it)
  • Copies of All Orders. For example, TDYs, deployments, activations and mobilizations for Guard/Reserves, etc.
  • Anything Else You Think Should Be Kept.

How to Get Copies of Your Military Records

In the event that you need a document that you don't have, contact the National Archives. A service member's military records are generally kept by each military branch for about five to 10 years after the person separates. After this time, the records are sent to the National Archives to be permanently maintained. You can request copies of your records directly from the Archives, and there is usually no charge for individual records.

How to Get Copies of Your VA Records

The VA can provide you with copies of records such as your VA medical records, GI Bill letter of eligibility, Certificate of Eligibility for VA Loans, and more. The easiest way to get copies of them is to sign up for a free VA eBenefits account.