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Obtaining Military Pension Files from the VA

Lisa Petersen

Drawing of US Army Civil War buttons


Most old military pension application files from the Revolutionary War to the Spanish-American War are at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These files were accessioned by the National Archives either before the creation of the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA) in 1930 or later when the VA considered them to be inactive. Researchers may view these files in person or request them by mail from the National Archives.

Pension files retained by the VA were those considered active, i.e., the veteran or his dependant was still receiving pension payments. The VA gave the pension files a VA number (beginning with XC- or C-) and incorporated them into claims folders. Most claims folders are still in the legal custody of the VA (therefore not accessible through the National Archives). Researchers wishing to see these more recent pension files must arrange access through their VA regional office.

Step 1

First find out whether the pension application file you seek is at the National Archives or in the custody of the VA by requesting the file from the National Archives (see how to obtain Civil War military service and pension records by mail near the bottom of the Civil War Records page). If they do not have it, they will give you the XC- or C-number needed to locate the file and tell you to contact your regional VA Office for help in gaining access to the file. (Note: the National Archives has some XC- and C-folders in the range between 2270002 and 3002620, and if they have yours, they will copy it for you.)

Step 2

Once you know the file is in the custody of the VA, call the VA in Washington, D.C., at (800) 827-1000, and ask for Beneficiary and Identification Records Location System (BIRLS) (it might be in the recorded menu, if not then try the operator), give them the veteran's name and XC- or C-number, and ask for the location of the folder and its transfer date. Office staff answering these queries are efficient and helpful, so the call won't take long. Claims folders are stored in various locations around the country - few, if any, are physically at the VA - so it is important to know the location.

Step 3

Find the VA office near you by looking for the regional office listed in the United States Government section of your white pages under "Veterans Affairs Department of." Write a letter to them that includes the following information: The VA will either transfer the folder to your regional office and invite you to see it there, or they will photocopy it at its location and mail it directly to you. Your request will probably take a few months to process.


Don't skip Step 1. If you can't wait for the National Archives to respond to your request by mail, then hire a professional researcher to find out for you.

Be very clear about the fact that you cannot obtain the pension file/claims folder from the National Archives and that only the VA can help you. You want to avoid any delays that can occur if someone in the VA system notices that your file is actually located at the Federal Records Center in Suitland, Maryland, for example, and believes that those records belong to the National Archives. Regardless of where the file is located, you must obtain the file through the VA because, as legal custodians, only they can let you see the file.

Good Luck!

This information is based on my experience as a professional researcher at the National Archives and is provided here for others who find themselves in this common situation. I hope this helps.


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Last updated: June 18 2006 23:46:00.