Journalism in the Public Interest

U.S. House Subcommittee Sets Hearing on Missing War Records

The session follows a ProPublica-Seattle Times investigation revealing that dozens of military units deployed in the war on terror have destroyed or failed to keep field reports of their activities.

(Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Nov. 16: This story has been updated.

Missing military records from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — detailed in a ProPublica-Seattle Times investigation over Veterans Day — will be the subject of a congressional hearing next month, the spokeswoman for a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee said today.

Separately, Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, today called on Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Veteran's Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki to respond to findings of the investigation, which detailed how dozens of Army units and U.S. Central Command destroyed or failed to keep field reports.

Michaud sits on the House Veterans' Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, which added the topic to a Dec. 4 session about the Department of Veterans Affairs effort to move its claims and benefit recordkeeping systems into the digital era.

ProPublica and the Times found that some veterans were denied disability benefits or faced delays in some cases because field records were unavailable to prove that injuries were combat-related. The stories focused on missing Army and Centcom field reports rather than those created and kept by the VA.

Michaud called for a joint study by the VA and the Pentagon into the impact of missing field records on veterans' benefit claims and the ability to study war time health risks, such as concern about exposure to toxic particulates from open-air burn pits used to incinerate garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We cannot allow these lost records to lead to the same gaps in knowledge and care that our Vietnam veterans face with Agent Orange and our First Gulf War veterans face with medically unexplained illnesses," wrote Michaud. "We need to get to the bottom of this in order to understand the full scope of the problem and ensure it doesn't happen again."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has also asked Panetta's office to report on the status of efforts to find and collect field records from Iraq and Afghanistan. A spokesman for Murray, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said Panetta has not yet responded.

Among the witnesses being called to the Dec. 4 hearing are representatives from the Department of Defense, the VA, the National Archives and Records Administration and veterans' advocates, a subcommittee spokeswoman said.

The final list of witnesses will be released later, but David Hobson, executive director of the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, said he had been asked to testify about specific examples of veterans who have had to deal with lost field records and the impact it had on them.

Despite assurances from the VA that veterans can work around missing field records, Hobson said, "oftentimes the other methods don't work out so well, if at all."

Below is the full text of Michaud's letter to Panetta:

November 16, 2012

Dear Secretary Panetta and Secretary Shinseki,

I am writing to express my concern with recent reports that the military has been destroying or failing to keep records from the field in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am very worried that the lack of records will have serious consequences for current and future veterans of these wars.

According to investigative reporting done by ProPublica, the Pentagon was aware of this serious crisis in unit level recordkeeping as early as 2005, but multiple units are unable to produce any records through 2008. These records include after-action write-ups, intelligence reports and on-the-ground accounts, including information on fighting, casualties, prisoners, battle damage, pictures and maps. The lack of these records for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will have far reaching implications for both our understanding of these wars and the ability of veterans to get the care and benefits they have earned through their service.

Since October 1, 2001, 1,515,707 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have become eligible for VA health care, and that number will grow as the remaining Afghanistan force is drawn down. It is critical that Congress, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs work together to improve the record keeping process and protect the rights of our veterans going forward. In order to ensure that all necessary remedies are put in place, I request information on the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs' joint efforts to address the impact the loss of these records will have on individual veterans filing benefit claims and the impact on the efforts of researchers examining war time health risks and patterns.

In addition, I request that the Department of Defense provide information on the steps taken to ensure that military units are submitting field reports and any evidence that demonstrates improvement in the collection of these records. I request that the Department of Veterans Affairs provide information on how often these types of records are used by veterans to establish a disability claim, including claims where a witness affidavit is submitted in place of an official military record.

Our service members and veterans depend on your agencies and Congress to protect them in battle and to care for them at home. We cannot allow these lost records to lead to the same gaps in knowledge and care that our Vietnam veterans face with Agent Orange and our First Gulf War veterans face with medically unexplained illnesses. I appreciate your attention to this important matter and look forward to working with you both as we continue to care for those who have served our country.


MIKE MICHAUD Member of Congress

Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times contributed reporting.

 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.

Calling Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Veteran’s Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki ?
How about any and all from the bush administration where all this began and was rampant!! This didn’t just happen, this was ongoing from the beginning!! And from reading all you’ve uncovered so far, including watching the NewsHour discussion to me it sounds more like the civilian and top military leaders wanted to bury the history especially after abandoning the main missions of why we even sent troops into that region, Afghanistan, and with the first drum beats pointed at Iraq then all that actually did come out publicly that they couldn’t bury!!
USN All Shore ‘67-‘71 GMG3 Vietnam In Country ‘70-‘71

Agreed. It was clear at the time to any critical thinker that serial war crimes were being comitted. Keeping records of that could be a big problem in the future.
I hope that statement is clear enough. The intentionally ignorant might not recognize a war crime… see Wikileaks for evidence. Or check references to Fallujah, especially with respect to birth defects. Or read a little about DU munitions, which affect US troops as well as “insurgents” and civilians. Weapons of war which kill or injure future generations are forbidden under Geneva Conventions.
It took McNamara (sp?) 20 years to admit Vietnam was a mistake.

clarence swinney

Nov. 18, 2012, 1:57 p.m.

off subject excuse me
I keep reading comments over and over naming Democrats as big spenders and taxers.
Individual Income—top incomes pay most but how much of income is key.

2009 Individual Income Taxes

top10%=paid 18% Tax Rate—got 43% total individual income AGI.
top 25%=paid14.68% Tax Rate—got 65.8% total individual income
top 50%=paid12.5% Tax Rate—got 86.5% of total individual income.
70,000,000 workers got 13.5%—paid 1.85%

A 35% Effective Tax on top 10% will balance our budget in 2013 fiscal year

Spenders——Reagan increased spending by 80% and Bush II by 90%
Debt—+189% under Reagan and 112% (doubled) under Bush II
Jobs—Carter + Clinton got 222,000 per month
Reagan + Two Bushes got 99,000 but added 9000B to a 1000B Debt.

Obama is projected to increase spending by 2-8%. Lowest since Great Depression
Bush left with 3520 Billion spent in 2009
Obama 2013 budget calls for 3800 but may be lower.
clarence swinney
political historian—lifeaholics of america
author-Lifeaholic—Success by working for a life not just a living
Burlington NC

“A 35% tax rate on the top 10% would balance the budget.”

In one year, no doubt.

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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