Journalism in the Public Interest

Army Says War Records Gap Is Real, Launches Recovery Effort

Army Secretary John McHugh confirms to members of Congress that commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to keep required field records: “Steps are being taken to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

An Army sergeant from Alpha Company 1-325 of the 82nd Airborne Division prepares to search a home in the Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, in September 2007. Among the missing war records are nearly all those from the 82nd Airborne Division. (John Moore/Getty Images)

July 12: This post has been updated.

The U.S. Army has conceded a significant loss of records documenting battlefield action and other operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and has launched a global search to recover and consolidate field records from the wars.

In an order to all commands and a separate letter to leaders of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said the service also is taking immediate steps to clarify responsibility for wartime recordkeeping.

The moves follow inquiries from the committee’s leaders after a ProPublica and Seattle Times investigation last year reported that dozens of Army and National Guard units had lost or failed to keep required field records, in some cases impeding the ability of veterans to obtain disability benefits. The problem primarily affected the Army but also extended to U.S. Central Command in Iraq.

McHugh, in his letter to committee leaders, said that while the Army had kept some of the required records, “we acknowledge that gaps exist.”

And in an enclosure responding to specific questions from the committee, McHugh confirmed that among the missing records are nearly all those from the 82nd Airborne Division, which was deployed multiple times during the wars.

McHugh’s letter was addressed to Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and the panel’s senior Democrat Michael Michaud of Maine, who said in an email Friday that the records were of critical importance to veterans.

“The admission that there are massive amounts of lost records is only the first step,” Michaud said. “I appreciate the Army issuing orders to address this serious problem, but I’m concerned that it took a letter from Congress to make it happen.”

“Our veterans have given up so much for our country, and they deserve a complete record of their service – for the sake of history as well as potential disability claims down the road,” he said.

A call and an email to Miller were not returned. Maj. Chris Kasker, an Army spokesman, said McHugh was not available for further comment.

In his order to Army commands, McHugh notes that units are required under federal law to keep field records, including “daily staff journals, situation reports, tactical operations center logs, command reports, (and) operational plans.”

“In addition to providing support for health-related compensation claims, these documents will help capture this important period in Army history,” he wrote.

But ProPublica and the Seattle Times uncovered assessments by the Army’s Center of Military History showing that scores of units lacked adequate records. Others had wiped them off computer hard drives amid confusion about whether classified materials could be transferred home.

In one 2010 report, investigators found infighting between the Army and U.S. Centcom over recordkeeping in Iraq and “the failure to capture significant operational and historical" materials in the theater.

The missing records do not include personnel files and medical records, which are stored separately from the field records that detail day-to-day activities.

McHugh’s response to the congressmen said Army rules delegate recordkeeping responsibility to commanders at all levels, but they weren’t always followed.

“Although numerous directives have been issued to emphasize the importance of the preservation of records,” the response says, “these directives unfortunately were often overcome by other operational priorities and not fully overseen by commanders.”

“Steps are being taken now to make sure this does not happen again,” the letter says.

McHugh’s order launching an Army-wide search for records also shifts responsibility for maintaining them in a new central repository.

Under regulations, individual units are charged with maintaining their records under the direction of the Army’s Records and Declassification Agency (RMDA), which archives some records but is not required to collect them. Separately, the Center of Military History sends trained historians into combat zones to collect materials to write the official history of the Army campaigns.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the historians found themselves becoming de facto archivists in combat, chasing down what field reports they could find. Their reports of missing or inadequate recordkeeping prompted alarms and complaints from military and civilian historians but little corrective action from Army brass.

Emails obtained by ProPublica show that the Center of Military History and RMDA have long argued about which Army branch should be gathering different records. Now, McHugh’s memo orders commands to send whatever they have to the Center, which is to assess what the Army does and does not have by Dec. 31.

Calls to the Center for Military History were not returned. Officials at the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, which had called on the Army to reconstruct missing field records, were not immediately available for comment.

A representative of the nation’s largest wartime veterans’ service group, the American Legion, called for more congressional hearings on the issue.

“It’s sad. My overall impression is it’s not good enough," Rich Dumancas, the Legion’s deputy director of claims, said of McHugh’s order. Missing reports need to be recreated by reaching out to affected veterans, he said.

Historians say the recordkeeping lapses echo the 1990-91 Iraq war, when the Army spent several years and millions of dollars to reconstruct the whereabouts of troops suffering from Gulf War Syndrome illnesses.

In 2003, as U.S. attacks on Iraq began anew, fresh orders went out about the importance of keeping operational records — explicitly citing the Gulf War failures to reinforce why records matter for veterans’ benefits and unit history.

The message didn’t always get through. In the case of the 82nd Airborne Division, with two deployments to Iraq and several more to Afghanistan, it appears that few records exist and there is low likelihood more will surface.

According to McHugh’s letter, military history detachments picked up some 82nd Airborne records in Afghanistan. However, “Subsequent attempts to collect documents from the division and its brigades during operations in Iraq and after redeployment to their home station were largely unsuccessful.”

Last year, ProPublica and the Times filed Freedom of Information Act requests for field records from several Army units and were told none could be found. The units included the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division.

The two congressmen also inquired about the 1st Armored Division. McHugh’s response states that, from 2003 to 2008 when the division deployed in Iraq, “some of their records and historical documents appear to have gone missing.”

An Army division usually contains between 10,000 and 18,000 soldiers.

McHugh told the Congressmen the Defense Department has records in a number of repositories and that the Center for Military History has collected 92 terabytes of digital and paper records from war on terror operations. Additional materials, including unit after-action reports, are in specialized collections held by the Army Center for Lessons Learned and Combat Studies Institute, his letter says.

Half a century ago when I did a hitch in the Army as a post-Korean war GI,  I kept every order, every pay slip and every document given to me. I have them to this day.
A relative and WW2 vet had hell to pay when he sought some sort of vets benefits.  His records had been destroyed in a fire.
Had he kept copies of his records he would have been OK.
The only VA benefit I ever used was a GI home loan. I had a copy of my separation papers eh, voila, that fast.

While the house tepublicans, they and the senate (t)‘s readily rubber stamped no bid contracts and all war costs on the countries credit card and quickly abandoned the main missions of why we sent our military into that region, attack Retired Gen. Shinseki and his Administration in hearing after hearing over these past four plus years and very publicly of late including a website added, especially the majority leader of the House Veterans Affairs Committee Rep Miller!!
How does a Country HONOR It’s Fallen, by Their Own ‘Sacrifice’ in Taking Care of the Brothers and Sisters They Served With!!

“If military action is worth our troops’ blood, it should be worth our treasure, too — not just in the abstract, but in the form of a specific ante by every American.” -Andrew Rosenthal 10 Feb. 2013

Rachel Maddow: “We got a huge round of tax cuts in this country a few weeks before9/11. Once 9/11 happened and we invaded Afghanistan, we kept the tax cuts anyway.
How did we think we were going to pay for that war? Did we think it was free?
Then, when we started a second simultaneous war in another country, we gave ourselves a second huge round of tax cuts. After that second war started. The wars, I guess, we thought would be free, don`t worry about it, civilians. Go about your business.” 23 May 2013

“Why in 2009 were we still using paper?” VA Assistant Secretary Tommy Sowers “When we came in, there was no plan to change that; we’ve been operating on a six month wait for over a decade.” 27 March 2013


“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” - Abraham Lincoln

USN All Shore ‘67-‘71 GMG3 Vietnam In Country ‘70-‘71

Sort of amazing, isn’t it?  The military claims the right to monitor everybody in the country, just in case one of us is a foreign terrorist.  But they can’t find their own records.

Let’s ignore the whole issue of assuming that veterans will be fine whether or not we pay them for their service, and making them jump through hoops to prove they have been wronged.  We should also ignore the worthless excuse that this all happened because they had an outdated computer, as if we only recently learned how to make computers retain data…

Curtis Sherman

July 16, 2013, 8:37 a.m.

I expect that deep down this lack of record keeping is deliberate, for a variety of reasons, including making it more difficult for veterans to collect benefits.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Lost to History

Lost to History: When War Records Go Missing

U.S. Centcom and dozens of Army units destroyed or failed to keep field records documenting the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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