Vets' advocate urges action on missing war records
Special to ProPublica
The leader of a national veterans' advocacy group urged a congressional subcommittee to force the Department of Defense to immediately reconstruct — if possible — missing military field records from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The appeal by Michael R. Viterna, president of the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, came at a hearing Tuesday afternoon before the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs and follows an investigation by ProPublica and The Seattle Times into missing records.
"We were deeply troubled from recent news reports that records from Iraq and Afghanistan were lost, destroyed or never created in the first place," Viterna said.
Viterna also called for legislation to lower the standard of proof for approving benefit claims if a soldier's case is hampered by "lost, missing or nonexistent military service records." ProPublica and the Times found cases in which soldiers faced years of delay in getting benefit in part because of missing records.
New Jersey Republican Jon Runyan, the subcommittee chairman, said after the hearing that he intends to hold more sessions on the matter of missing field records next year. Runyan said he plans to call officials from the Department of the Army, which documents show had widespread record losses.
"Issues pertaining to the thoroughness of DoD's record keeping have recently received media attention in light of evidence that some units were not properly documenting in-service events, such as combat-related incidents," Runyan in a statement opening the hearing.
"This has been a source of significant frustration for many veterans who file claims with VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) and are dependent on such documentation to substantiate their claims," he said.
Documents obtained by ProPublica and the Times showed that entire Army brigades could not produce field records for certain deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2010 assessment of U.S. Central Command in Iraq found that recordkeeping was in disarray, with "large gaps in records collections ... the failure to capture significant operational and historical" materials.
The Army said that recordkeeping is a concern but that it is working to improve procedures. U.S. Centcom's former records manager confirmed that some operational records were lost in Iraq but that others are being recovered.
Field records are a distinct class of military records, unlike medical or personnel records. Among other things they include after-action reviews describing combat operations; situation and incident reports; daily and staff journals; and command reports and orders.
The records have multiple uses after they leave the battlefield. Military and civilian historians regard them as vital for their work. They can provide critical evidence in criminal investigations arising from military operations and are used to train upcoming commanders in lessons learned.
Recreating missing operational records, as Vitera suggested, can be an expensive and time-consuming process. The Army spent millions of dollars on a similar process following the 1990-91 war in Iraq, when missing field records hampered efforts to help veterans with symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome.
Runyan's subcommittee has jurisdiction over the Department of Veterans' Affairs rather than operational issues, such as Army recordkeeping practices. The two bureaucracies intermingle, however, because the VA often needs field records, personnel records and medical records to process claims. The VA is under pressure to reduce a claims backlog with an average wait time of nearly nine months.
"Often a single record or notation can be the difference between when a veteran's claim is accepted or denied," Runyan said during the hearing.
Separately, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, have written to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta asking him to explain the status of efforts to locate and collect field records for units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Michaud, a member of Runyan's subcommittee, formally put his letter into the hearing record Tuesday.
"While DoD (Department of Defense) has assured Sen. Murray that they will respond to her inquiry on missing field records, we are still awaiting that answer," a spokesman for the senator said. "If no response is forthcoming, Sen. Murray will certainly seek out answers in public hearings with Pentagon officials."