WATERVLIET, N.Y.--If you served in the New York Army National Guard after 1950, Stephen Essex has your number—along with lots of other information about you.
Essex, the inactive/active records officer for the New York Army National Guard personnel office since 2006, locates records for Soldiers who left service years ago, as well as those who are still in the Guard.
Essex fields 40 to 60 requests for records each week.
Some come from old Soldiers who want proof of their service to obtain veterans benefits like a veterans housing loan, a veterans discount at a store, or simply to prove they served, Essex said.
They didn't care too much about keeping track of records when they were a 20-something Guardsman finishing out their enlistment, but now -- in their 60s, or 70s -- they want proof of their military service, he explained.
Other requests come from employers — police departments or private businesses that want to verify a job applicant's military background. He also gets records requests from federal agents conducting security-clearance investigations, Essex said.
Once he even had to testify about a Soldier's records at a court martial at Fort Eustis, Md.
The case involved a former New York Army National Guard Soldier who, among other crimes, had falsified his records to reflect awards he had not earned. He claimed he had been awarded the Air Assault Badge, Pathfinder Badge and Air Crewman Badge while serving in the New York Army National Guard.
But his New York National Guard records included no orders awarding those badges, Essex testified.
In one instance he's particularly proud of, Essex's hunt for military records enabled a 71-year old former National Guard Soldier to qualify for subsidized housing based on his military service.
That, the gentleman told him in a heartfelt letter, meant $250 more in his pocket each month to care for two disabled people he helps and “take my Frannie out to dinner once a month.”
Essex accesses several sets of records when responding to a query – in paper documents, microfilm, and two different computer databases — depending on when the Guardsman left service.
The records for Guard Soldiers who served from 1950 to 1984 are in paper.
The actual records are maintained by the New York State Archives in the New York State Records Center at the Harriman State Office Campus in Albany. The center holds 5,000 boxes of New York Army National Guard records dating back to the 1950s.
Other state records on New York military personnel — covering about 1.8 million people, ranging from muster rolls of militia units who fought against the French and Indians to World War II records -- are held in the main archives building in the New York State Cultural Education Center.
Essex has 3 by 5 cards in file cases that stand four feet high and eight feet long. The cards, in turn, identify where the paper records stored in the State Records Centers.
When he gets a records request, Essex pulls the card with the requestor's name. That card indicates where the records are stored at the Records Center. He submits a request to the center and makes a weekly or bi-weekly trip over to bring back records for review.
Some of the more recent paper records are complete in folders, known as 201 files, Essex said. Older records are often simply a sheet of paper. Sometimes they are stapled together and sometimes not.
All these factors make tracking down paper records much more time-consuming than records created since 1984, when the Army began photographing those paper records and turning them into microfilm and microfiche records.
The microfilm and microfiche — a flat transparent plastic sheet with the miniaturized photos of paper records embedded in it — were easier to store than paper 201 files. Soldiers could also easily carry all their records on one or two microfiche cards.
Essex has a microfilm reader that allows him to access and print those New York Army National Guard personnel files. He doesn't have a microfiche reader.
Microfilm and microfiche were state of the art until 1995, when the New York Army National Guard began turning the records into computerized images and data, Essex said.
Those files, maintained in a system called Metafile, cover the records of Guardsmen and women who served from 1995 until the Army began computerizing records in 2006.
Now the digital Interactive Personnel Electronic Records Management System (iPERMS) allows Soldiers' records to be stored in OMPF — Official Military Personnel File — in computerized form.
The Army began providing records in those formats to Soldiers who left service in 2006, Essex said. Since then more of the older digital records have been transferred into these systems. Now records dating back to 2002 are available on IPERMS, Essex said.
The advantage of the IPERM digital files, Essex said, is that Soldiers can access them directly over the internet, check them to make sure the records are accurate and up-to-date, and easily retain and carry copies of their records.
One thing his 10 years of looking for Soldiers' records has taught him, Essex said, is that any Soldier —whether they are retiring with 20 years of service, or leaving after a six-year enlistment — should hold onto every military record they have.
“I would save everything the military gives you. Make a file and drop it in there. Because unfortunately things get lost—forever,” he said.