Destroyed and Missing Combat Records Stymie Veterans Seeking Benefits

Monday, November 12, 2012

Adding insult to injury, disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are finding their claims denied because the military has lost the records that prove they were in combat. The veterans, who have faced government evasion in the recent past, often suffer with injuries like Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Traumatic brain injury (TBI) or loss of limbs that make fighting the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for benefits next to impossible.


According to an investigation by ProPublica and The Seattle Times, the problem is that over the last decade, the Pentagon has lost or destroyed millions of military field records from Iraq and Afghanistan, which are often essential for soldiers trying to prove their combat experiences and obtain related medical benefits or other services. As the military switched from paper-based recordkeeping to computer-based during the Gulf War era (1990–1991), Army units failed to keep and preserve adequate records, even after the Army introduced a centralized report collection system. Many units ignore the new system, and military culture, which had celebrated near-obsessive recordkeeping for 200 years, began to devalue the entire enterprise. In addition, competing bureaucracies blamed one another.


By the turn of the century poor recordkeeping was apparently endemic. A 2009 Army report found that recordkeeping was so bad in Afghanistan that from 2004 to 2008 “very few…records were saved anywhere.” Specifically, from 2004 to 2008, at least 15 brigades (1 brigade = 4,000 troops) serving in Iraq had no records on hand, nor did at least 5 brigades deployed to Afghanistan. There were an additional 62 units in Iraq, and 10 in Afghanistan (including most of those deployed during the first 4 years there), that were described as having “some records, but not enough to write an adequate Army history.”


Missing field records do not pose an insuperable obstacle to benefit claims. The VA will also accept medical and personnel records, but when those are inadequate, claimants must often track down long lost comrades at arms to sign sworn affidavits regarding their combat service. Building a disability claim from witness statements can take much more time, concedes Gen. Peter Chiarelli, a retired Army vice chief of staff: “You would always love to have that operational record available to document an explosion, but there are other ways,” he explained. “You can provide witness statements from others who were in that explosion. But it’s going to be more difficult.”


In addition to bureaucratic finger-pointing, alleged security concerns also led to record destruction, as some military commanders ordered units to purge computer hard drives before redeploying home, destroying any classified field records they contained.


The loss of field records has far-reaching implications beyond the toll it is taking on disabled veterans. Field records are the bedrock of military history research, and their loss will make it much harder for military historians to reconstruct what happened in detail, and thus limit the ability of military strategists to learn lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t even start to describe the dimensions of the problem,” said Conrad C. Crane, director of the U.S. Army’s Military History Institute. “I fear we’re never really going to know clearly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan because we don’t have the records.”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefit Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans (by Peter Sleeth, ProPublica, and Hal Bernton, Seattle Times)

Pentagon Avoids Giving Some Veterans Benefits by Changing Name of Their Disorder (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

VA Accused of Making Veterans Benefits Appeals Harder (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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