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Veterans’ Advocate to Congress: Reconstruct Missing War Records

A House subcommittee on veterans’ affairs hears from veterans groups after a ProPublica-Seattle Times investigation revealing that dozens of Army units failed to keep sufficient records of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. soldiers on a patrol in July 2011 in Iskandariya, Babil Province, Iraq. A House subcommittee on veterans' affairs heard from veterans groups after a ProPublica-Seattle Times investigation found that dozens of Army units had failed to keep sufficient records of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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."

This is propagandistic in that it assumes that there is motivation to create anything but the appearance of government concern for its troops.  “Governments lie,” Howard Zinn.  Rather than casting the story as one where the military has somehow failed in a sacred commitment it would be more accurate to say that the government’s slip is showing revealing its true attitude, expressed only once candidly that I know of, by Henry Kissinger who said, “Soldiers are just dumb animals.”  That is the counter propagandistic story, and one that I never hear from this source.

Come now.  The company clerks in the 978th Engineer Maintenance Company destroyed their records rather that pack them at the end of WWII.  I know that this happened in Vietnam.  We also know that some records from Vietnam were falsified to cover up US troops where they were not supposed to be or air units that bombed where the gov’t said they hadn’t

So, military historians face the problem of deciding which is which in Iraq etc.  Conspricy?  maybe not.

No conspiracy.  Just how the superior show contempt for their inferiors. Heirarchy flows on rivers of adoration and contempt, or as a Bush official was described “a kick down, kiss up sort of guy.”  Hired soldiers are property, always have been, nothing more than things to be marched into the killing machine.  Record keeping is a separate issue with different motivations.  Government Issue.  Of course you praise your cattle as you lead them up the kill shoot.  Then loose the paper work.

SNAFU

NOVA is right, the burden of proof needs to shift to VA from the individual veteran/family member.  This would reduce the backlog and ensure that veterans are treated with respect as decision making would replace adjudication.  If we are unable to maintain, find and produce accurate records of our actions when we induct service members, that should be on us.

Raleigh Perry

Dec. 6, 2012, 5:15 p.m.

Why just recreate records from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars?  My records from Vietnam had been stripped by the Service Record Center and what now are critical medical records are simply missing.  The VA takes no one’s word alone but will accept “buddy statements” in the case of missing records.  Although they say that these things are not questioned and are considered as real evidence, they don’t treat buddy statements that way in reality.

What needs to be done is OCS needs a class added to their curriculum.  It’s the 21st Century.  You don’t throw away data that’s not backed up somewhere first.  Or, perhaps service members need to keep their own records in parallel (saved each day to a USB key, and a copy Cc:‘d to the Library of Congress)?

Otherwise, this’ll continue to happen, needlessly.