The 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 Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Army Secretary John McHugh said the service also is taking immediate steps to clarify responsibility for wartime record keeping.
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.
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 deployed multiple times during the wars.
McHugh’s letter was addressed to the committee chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and the panel’s senior Democrat, Michael Michaud of Maine, who said in an email July 12 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.
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.
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 record-keeping 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.