A strange thing happened when Christopher DeLara filed for disability benefits after his tour in Iraq: The U.S. Army said it had no records showing he had ever been overseas.
DeLara had searing memories of his combat experiences. A friend bled to death before his eyes. He saw an insurgent shoot his commander in the head. And, most hauntingly, he recalled firing at an Iraqi boy who had attacked his convoy.
The Army said it could find no field records documenting any of these incidents.
DeLara appealed, fighting for five years before a judge accepted the testimony of an officer in his unit. By then he had divorced, was briefly homeless and had sought solace in drugs and alcohol.
DeLara’s case is part of a much larger problem that has plagued the U.S. military since the 1990 Gulf War: a failure to create and maintain the types of field records that have documented American conflicts since the Revolutionary War.
A joint investigation by ProPublica and The Seattle Times has found that the recordkeeping breakdown was especially acute in the early years of the Iraq war, when insurgents deployed improvised bombs with devastating effects on U.S. soldiers. The military has also lost or destroyed records from Afghanistan, according to officials and previously undisclosed documents.
The second part of the reporting series examines the story of Jim Butler, father of Sgt. Jacob Butler, who goes searching for answers about his son’s death. Before Jacob Butler left for Iraq, Jim made an unusual promise that if his son died, he would go and stand where he fell.
(This video was shot and edited by Steve Hebert and produced by Steve Hebert and Krista Kjellman Schmidt for ProPublica)
The loss of field records — after-action write-ups, intelligence reports and other day-to-day accounts from the war zones — has far-reaching implications. It has complicated efforts by soldiers like DeLara to claim benefits. And it makes it harder for military strategists to learn the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the nation’s most protracted wars.
Military officers and historians say field records provide the granular details that, when woven together, tell larger stories hidden from participants in the day-to-day confusion of combat.
The Army says it has taken steps to improve handling of records — including better training and more emphasis from top commanders. But officials familiar with the problem said the missing material may never be retrieved.
“I can’t even start to describe the dimensions of the problem,” said Conrad C. Crane, director of the U.S. Army’s Military History Institute. “I fear we’re never really going to know clearly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan because we don’t have the records.”
The Army, with its dominant presence in both theaters, has the biggest deficiencies. But the U.S. Central Command in Iraq (Centcom), which had overall authority, also lost records, according to reports and other documents obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act.
In Baghdad, Centcom and the Army disagreed about which was responsible for keeping records. There was confusion about whether classified field records could be transported back to the units’ headquarters in the United States. As a result, some units were instructed to erase computer hard drives when they rotated home, destroying the records that had been stored on them.
Through 2008, dozens of Army units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan either had no field records or lacked sufficient reports for a unit history, according to Army summaries obtained by ProPublica. DeLara’s outfit, the 1st Cavalry Division, was among the units lacking adequate records during his 2004 to 2005 deployment.
Recordkeeping was so poor in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007 that “very few Operation ENDURING FREEDOM records were saved anywhere, either for historians’ use, or for the services’ documentary needs for unit heritage, or for the increasing challenge with documenting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” according to an Army report from 2009.
Entire brigades deployed from 2003 to 2008 could not produce any field records, documents from the U.S. Army Center of Military History show.
The Pentagon was put on notice as early as 2005 that Army units weren’t turning in records for storage to a central computer system created after a similar recordkeeping debacle in the 1990-91 Gulf War.
In that war, a lack of field records forced the Army to spend years and millions of dollars to reconstruct the locations of troops who may have been exposed to toxic plumes that were among the suspected causes of Gulf War Syndrome.
At the outset of the Iraq war, military commanders tried to avoid repeating that mistake, ordering units to preserve all historical records.
But the Army botched the job. Despite new guidelines issued in 2008 to safeguard records, some units still purged them. The next summer, the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team in Iraq was ordered to erase hard drives before leaving them for replacement troops to use, said a Guard spokesman, Capt. Keith Kosik.
Historians had complained about lax recordkeeping for years with little result.
“We were just on our knees begging for the Army to do something about it,” said Dr. Reina Pennington, a Professor at Norwich University in Vermont who chaired the Army’s Historical Advisory Committee. “It’s the kind of thing that everyone nods about and agrees it’s a problem but doesn’t do anything about.”
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.
Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000. He has covered military and veterans affairs, reporting from Iraq in 2003 and from Afghanistan in 2009 and this fall. Among other things, Bernton has reported on veterans’ health issues, post-traumatic stress and, recently,improvised explosive devices.
ProPublica’s Marshall Allen, Liz Day and Kirsten Berg contributed to this story.