Preserving history: Douglas County officials digitize military service records
The discharge papers date back to the Spanish-American War.
After the Husky Refinery fire in April 2018, less than two years into her job, Tracy Middleton started to wonder what would happen if something devastated the Douglas County Courthouse.
After all, Douglas County’s Register of Deeds is responsible for maintaining decades of milestones for families who’ve lived in the county – marriages, births, deaths and even military service.
Bound volumes of those confidential records line the shelves of the vault in the Register of Deeds Office and could put a lot of history in jeopardy if anything happened to the Douglas County Courthouse.
Vital records dating back to 1907— marriages, births, divorces, deaths — have been digitized at the state level, Middleton said. However, military service discharge records are not maintained by state officials.
That prompted Middleton to launch a project this year to digitally capture the paper records of service members discharged from the military decades ago.
“There was one we just read … it was for the Spanish-American War,” Middleton said.
The discharge following the 1898 conflict with Spain was recorded in the Register of Deeds Office in 1940.
Most of the records captured digitally so far go back to World War I. Only the first of about a dozen thick volumes has been digitally recorded so far.
“You’re going to see a huge difference between today’s typical form and what they used at the turn of the (last) century,” said Carissa Skifstad, veterans case manager with the Douglas County Veterans Service Office.
Military discharge records in the early 1900s were handwritten and look nothing like the DD-214 form used today to record the end of a military deployment or end of service. The early documents include information on the service members' character, whether they were wounded in battle and information like the clothing they left the service with, Middleton said.
But the confidential documents are not available to the curious, Middleton said. Typically, they are only available to the service member or their next of kin.
“How confident am I that the federal government has all this information going all the way back to 1900?” Middleton asked. “I don’t know. When it came to 2021, and we had finished our project for 2020, in looking at the things I wanted to get digitized, the next logical thing was those military records.”
By digitizing the records, Middleton said the documents could still be retrieved if something should happen and the paper records were destroyed.
Many military records have been lost to fire, Skifstad said.
According to the National Archive, a fire in July 1973 destroyed 16 to 18 million military personnel records at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. No microfilm or duplicate copies of the records existed.
Records were lost for about 80% of all Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960, and 75% of all Air Force personnel discharged between 1947 and 1964 with names following James E. Hubbard to Z.
It’s taken decades to recover some of the 6.5 million water-soaked, partially burned records that could be salvaged, according to a 2013 report by Stars and Stripes.
For the records destroyed in the 1973 fire, Skifstad said she can piece together former service members' military records to issue a certificate. She said it’s a process that can take months.
“Getting separation papers can be difficult,” she said.
The Veterans Administration recommends supplying documents such a statements or affidavits from fellow service members or military medical personnel; photographs of their time in service; and any available military record to help reconstruct an individual’s military service.
“If we get them digitized, and make sure that record preservation is in place, should something happen, they can all be retrieved,” Middleton said. “It’s just the reassurance that if something were to happen, we have the start of a backup.”
Volume 1 is complete and work on volume 2 is underway.
“It’s going to take a little while,” Middleton said.