Lost and Never Found

Military Destroyed or Lost Key Records that Veterans Need to Fight VA.

Here is more bad news that is adding even more frustration for our newer Veterans filing a disability claim against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Reporter Peter Sleeth revealed that since the start of the 1990 Gulf War, the United States military has failed to create and maintain proper field reports of our service members’ actions in war zones.

A joint investigation by ProPublica and The Seattle Times found that many of these vital documents, which include after-action write-ups, intelligence reports and other day-to-day troop accounts, have simply been lost or are missing for many Army units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This record-keeping disaster was especially prevalent in the early years of the Iraq war when insurgents deployed improvised bombs that had an overwhelming impact on U.S. troops.

Why is the loss of these field reports so important?  Because, as ProPublica notes, it seriously complicates efforts by Veterans to obtain disability compensation from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

In order for a Veteran to establish VA service connection for a present disability, that Veteran must provide three critical pieces of evidence to VA:

1.    A current disability;

2.    An in-service incurrence or aggravation of a disease or injury; and

3.    A nexus between the current disability and the in-service disease or injury.

The bottom line: When there is no evidence of an in-service event, Veterans often lose their fight for VA benefits.

Peter Sleeth, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, recently answered questions from Redditors on this military records fiasco.

“History is written from these records,” Sleeth noted. “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.”

Sleeth said the best solution to this problem “would be rigorous training of senior officers and penalties for not keeping records properly, like demotion.”

What advice would Sleeth give to active soldiers in order to lower their risk of falling victim to this when their time comes?

“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,” he said. “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.”

In response to Pro-Publica’s stellar reporting the U.S. Army 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 on-going wars spanning 23 years in more than 80 locations.

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 in a widely distributed memo that the Department of Defense is also taking immediate steps to clarify responsibility for wartime record keeping.

That’s a good start but where is the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record promised so many years ago?  Without prompt access to accurate and complete military records, our veterans are often left in limbo for years without VA treatment and benefits.  That is not right.  Our Veterans shouldn’t have to become expert detectives in tracking down partial documents in government archives because the military failed keep vital records.

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