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Veterans Face Uphill Battle for Benefits When Field Records Are Lost, Destroyed

November 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
"History is the last thing we care about during war, and the last thing we think about when we get home," says ProPublica's Peter Sleeth, who talks to Jeffrey Brown about the challenges facing veterans who need access to benefits but whose records have been wiped out.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And to our three Veterans Day stories.

The first involves soldiers returning from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, and facing an unexpected uphill battle as they fight for benefits.

According to a new report by the nonprofit online news organization ProPublica and The Seattle times, the U.S. government sometimes has no official record that men and women actually served overseas.

It sounds unlikely, but an investigation by the two news organizations revealed that millions of U.S. military field records have been lost or destroyed.

For more on the report and what it means for veterans, I’m joined by ProPublica journalist Peter Sleeth.

First of, Peter, explain what kinds of records we’re talking about here and who is affected.

PETER SLEETH, ProPublica: Field records are a distinct category from medical or personnel records.

Field records are things like after-action reports that explain what happened in combat, patrol reports, intelligence reports, prisoner of war status, anything you would create in the field to document what the army is doing in the field other than medical and personnel records.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, as to who is affected, you tell the story of some soldiers.

One of them is Christopher DeLara. So, just explain his case so people get a sense of what kind of people are affected and what kind of cases they’re up against.

PETER SLEETH: Well, his is a good case because, like most veterans’ cases before the VA, they’re very complicated.

He came in, waited five years to get his disability benefits for PTSD. He had been a clerk in Baghdad, but had been sent on many combat missions.

At first, they denied him simply because of a paperwork error, that he hadn’t even been in Iraq. That was corrected. Then they denied him because he didn’t have PTSD, they said.

The third time he applied is when the field records came in. He had given them detailed events of when he had been in combat. And the Army could find no record that he had ever been in combat in any of these situations. That kept him for at least another one or two years from getting any disability benefits.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so the obvious question is, who is supposed to keep these records and what has happened to them? Why are they lost or destroyed? How could that happen?

PETER SLEETH: Well, three things, poor training, poor leadership, and this almost unexplained disaster of units wiping their computer hard drives before they came home from the war.

This is the first real electronic war where records were meant to be kept entirely on computers. It was new. They had strict rules and regulations about what were to be done.

But if the commanding officer of a given unit didn’t insist those things be done, they weren’t done. And that happened again and again and again. Reports either weren’t made, weren’t kept or their hard drives or their computers were wiped before they came home. That’s losing all those records.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing that comes through in this story is the sense that perhaps people there were not taking the need to keep the records as seriously as they might or should have.

PETER SLEETH: Yes. And that’s not a new problem.

The European historian for the Allies in World War II said something to the effect of, history is the last thing we care about during war and the first thing we care about when we get home.

The difference in this war was the training and the discipline to keep those records in theater, so that these records were available for veterans and a multitude of other uses after the war, just broke down completely.

It seems to have barely worked at all. The reason today that you and I can follow the route of a given Civil War regiment campsite by campsite through the American landscape is because these records were kept. They just — it fell apart in the first Gulf War and it was never fixed for these two wars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, speaking of history, as you also point out in the article, this is a big loss for military historians, right, in terms of putting together details of what happened.

PETER SLEETH: It is.

And when you think of these wars as controversial, costly and as long as they have been, historians are aghast at this, that they’re not going to be able, in 20 to 30 years, as veterans disappear, even be able to write these histories because of the massive loss of these records.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as to the response from the military, you quote one Army spokesman, Major Christopher Kasker.

And he says:

“The matter of records management is of great concern to the Army. It’s an issue we have acknowledged and are working to correct and improve.”

What can you tell us about what has happened since you brought this to their attention?

PETER SLEETH: I can’t tell you a lot, because the Army has been cooperating only on a very limited basis. They spoke to us initially back in April in an hour-long interview at FortBelvoir in Arlington.

They declined to answer more detailed questions about their records holdings after that. And we have only had sporadic contact. The secretary of the Army has declined to be interviewed by us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a sense that there’s pressure being put on them by some of the people — well, the stories that you yourself told?

PETER SLEETH: I couldn’t speak to that. I don’t know if there’s pressure being put on them. I only know that they were not particularly forthcoming to our questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you add it all up, Peter, how widespread a problem is this? And in what kinds of cases do you imagine it going forward? What kind of cases would we hear about going forward that perhaps aren’t addressed simply because the records aren’t there?

PETER SLEETH: I think it’s very widespread. We came across an inventory where at least one division and dozens and dozens of brigades are missing, if not all, most of their records.

What worry — what is most worrisome here is all of our last few wars come up with an unexpected illness, Agent Orange from Vietnam, what’s popularly known as Gulf War Syndrome from the first Gulf War. We have had traumatic brain injuries that can rely on these field records.

And now there’s this looming issue of burn pits. And there are many soldiers coming forward saying they have had lung damage from being around burn pits in the military. Those may very well need these same field records to document where they were at a given time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Sleeth of ProPublica, thanks so much.

PETER SLEETH: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can find a link to the full report from ProPublica on our website.