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How Did Scores of Military Units Lose Combat Records in the War on Terror? A Q&A With Peter Sleeth

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This week, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Peter Sleeth answered questions from Redditors on the revelation that field reports have been lost or are missing for many Army units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Below, highlights of that discussion.

(Read: Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefit Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans)

Q: How far does this problem reach? Are you aware of any issues like this with the intelligence agencies? I find it funny/sad that veterans are losing benefits and care because the army couldn't get their version of Excel installed. But there are over 3,000 pages of documentation into the Petraeus affair. — TommyFoolery

A: Senior officers tend to keep their own records quite well, they are conscious of their own history, for certain. We are now exploring whether these missing field records are causing problems with intelligence activities, as a matter of fact.

Q: How the military has dealt with what I'm sure is a recurring problem over the last several decades? Is the problem better/worse? amzam

A: My belief is that lost records are a constant in a large bureaucracy like the military since the beginning. However, what we are talking about in our story is a massive loss of field records in volumes never before seen. Understand that field records are a distinct category from medical or personnel records, which are kept in separate pipelines, so to speak.

Q: You document the impact on veterans seeking benefits. Are there implications for how the war is remembered? — collo229

A: Yes, history is written from these records.Field records are used by historians for their singular ability to go to an exact spot in time. For example, a few years back I was working on a book about a company of Civil War soldiers. Using field records they recorded, I was able to follow them campsite by campsite through three years of war. I mean, they were so detailed I could go to each site across the South.

Q: Were you really that surprised to find the largest bureaucracy in the U.S. federal government was so inefficient? I'm surprised they can find any records. — IhaveSomeQuestions56

A: I was surprised because the U.S. Army has an efficient track record in keeping field records back to the Revolutionary War. It only really fell apart with the onset of computers.

Q: Do you think this was the result of peacetime lack of diligence, and are veterans organizations going to coordinate a response, e.g. organize a massive organized march on the Pentagon? — MomsHugs

A: Yes, I do think this was a lack of planning during peacetime. It is terribly sad the money and time that was wasted. As to vets organizations, it is a strange mix, some are so tied up with the VA, in my opinion, they cannot afford to anger them. Yet plenty of the vets organizations are mad about this and I expect you will see them petitioning Congress.

Q: How much of the missing records do you believe are due to commanders covering their (or others) ass(es)?[TD1] — TommyFoolery

A: Good question, I imagine it happens occasionally, but in 10 months of reporting I did not find evidence of anything nefarious. Rather, it was a mix of poor training, worse execution and inexcusably sloppy behavior.

Q: That was my first reaction when I read that units were wiping hard drives before they left them for their replacements. Nothing says teamwork like making the new guys start from scratch. — TommyFoolery

A: What typically happened was the departing unit would clear the hard drive to make room for the new unit's data. So the departing unit would leave maybe the last 60 days activity, then clean the rest of the hard drive to allow for more storage capacity. Or, they cleaned them because they were ordered to for security reasons.

Q: Do you reckon some records may have been consciously "lost" to bury the truth, perhaps, on atrocities military personnel may have committed while on the tours? What happens to accountability where there are no records? Who takes the fall for this? —OjayisOjay

A: That is a popular thought out there; I really don't think it happened much, if at all. That said, it would be unwise to rule it out. Accountability is absent, in answer to your excellent question. As to who takes the fall, we shall see. We are going to keep pushing on this story. We think there is much more that is buried here.

Q: What do you think the best solution to this problem is? — IhaveSomeQuestions56

A: the best solution would be rigorous training of senior officers and penalties for not keeping records properly, like demotion.

Q: What advice would you give to active soldiers in order to lower their risk of falling victim to this when their time comes? — TommyFoolery

A: I would tell soldiers to get copies of everything from their deployment orders, to their medical records, to whatever field records they can that involve them and keep them safe, send them home, whatever. A soldier can always ask to see what relevant records they have through the U.S. Army's Joint Services Records Research Center, and for Marines, through the Marines. If there records are missing, field records in particular, make sure you keep a contact list for your commanding officers and other soldiers once you get home. You can use your comrades for "lay" testimony that will substitute for missing records.

Q: Given your line of work, how much do you wish your name was Peter Sleuth? It's only one letter away. —imnotyourbloke

A: I've been doing this work for nigh on 30 years. I have heard that, and much worse versions of my name. Although I am a fan of the PBS show "Sherlock Holmes" with Jeremy Britt.


Peter Sleeth is a veteran investigative reporter who covered the Iraq war for The Oregonian and helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for breaking news. Now freelancing, his most recent piece for the Oregon Historical Quarterly is a profile of progressive-era activist Tom Burns.


SHARE YOUR STORY: Are you a veteran who can't obtain your military field records? We want to hear from you.


WATCH: Peter Sleeth and Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton discuss veteran benefits on Huffington Post Live

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