Monday, September 10, 2007

Freedom of Information

We were talking about my dad last night, my best buds and I. No, I'm not obsessing; in fact, I think that as someone who lost her father less than two months ago, I've spent a remarkably small amount of time talking and/or even thinking about him. Plus, there was actually a fairly direct line to the subject.

Anyway, one of the hubbies, who hadn't heard the whole birth certificate/name story, began asking me some questions. We got onto the subject of Dad's military service, and--being an officer himself--he asked some more questions, to which I was only able to give the vaguest of replies. My dad had told me some very convoluted and seemingly implausible story about his military service, and switching branches during the Korean War, and a records screw-up that led to his being dishonorably discharged from one branch, but honorably discharged from another. This led to a discussion of how it would have been possible for him to be getting VA health benefits, since he didn't seem to fit either of the criteria--retirement after 20 years of service, or a service-related injury.

"You know," I said, finally. "I can't even say for sure what his NAME was; I certainly can't answer any of these questions. And each question leads to several more."

"Well," my friend said, "why not do a Freedom of Information Act request on him?"

Uh. Duh. Apparently, over 20 years in journalism has NOT honed my investigative skills to a razor-sharp edge. Or even to a piss-poor dull edge, since FOIA is equivalent to Journalism 101. Sigh.

And so, this morning, I found myself at the National Personnel Records Center website, where I discovered I didn't even have to jump through any serious hoops. Being the daughter of a deceased serviceman, all I had to do was sign and fax an affidavit to that end and then give some info about my dad (SS#, date of birth, simple stuff like that), after which I was told that the information I requested would be mailed to me.

And that was that. I only requested info from the supposed "first" branch of the service he was in, asking to know about his discharge from that service, and asking for his medical records, especially mental health (which was an option in the menu of choices available to me). We'll see what I get, and when.

But I do have to say, it feels a little...ghoulish. Or something. Like, is it really my business? Why do I care? Why do I want to know? Actually, that's disingenuous. Whether or not it's really my business is a real and legitimate concern, but I know why I want to know...because I hate being not in the know, for one thing. But even more to the point, because at the back of my mind, prodded forward on a regular basis by a number of different people with the same idea, there's a book brewing. A book not about my dad so much as about lies and truth and mental illness. A memoir, perhaps--not of his life, but of his life's impact on my life. Or something less personal and more contemplative. Or something less personal and more scientific. I'm not quite sure. And it may never come to pass. But in the meantime, I'll probably slowly, very slowly, follow a few of these paths towards knowing at least a couple of 'truths' about my father, to see how or even whether they resolve some of the fuzziness--both factual and emotional--I feel when I think about him.

I'll let you know what I find out, if anything...


Ambre said...

You want to know because being curious about his background is totally natural. And being a writer, you think about writing when something is interesting and curious. Don't demonize yourself, there's an online form for such things because most people are interested to know things about their parents background after they are gone.

po said...

Of course you want to know; it's part of who you are and there's nothing wrong with that. You tried to uncover the truth while he was alive and found out the hard way that you couldn't. Now that you have a means at your disposal to try and piece some parts together, it's completely understandable for you to want to do so.

Hugs, hon.

Swistle said...

Hello--I clicked over from Plain Jane.

I would want to know, too. The more information = the better. Well, to a certain extent. And this situation seems within that extent.