ProPublica is reporting on what appears to be a very serious systematic failure on behalf of the U.S. Military to retain combat records, dating back to the beginning of 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 consequences of these lost records are dire. Not only does it make it hard for some veterans to claim their rightful benefits, it also makes it harder for the military leadership to study the details of the conflicts our troops have been involved in, in order to improve tactically. ProPublica explains, “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.”
Ultimately, the loss of these records puts our service people in jeopardy—whether it’s when they’re fighting on the front lines or trying to claim benefits. Soldiers like Christopher DeLara, who have been through many combat traumas (like watching his friend bleed to death or seeing his commander get shot in the head), are told there are no records of their service and are denied the help they need. DeLara fought for five years to prove his service before a judge finally accepted testimony from an officer. By then, as ProPublica explains, he was divorced, had been homeless, and was struggling with drugs and alcohol.
It seems these record losses were at their worst in the early years of Iraq, and in the Army branch of the armed forces. ProPublica quotes an expert:
“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 need for these records is becoming increasingly dire as more and more veterans come forward with evidence of side-effects from “burn pits”. However, there are so many missing records that it’s hard to truly track a pattern. And without a solid pattern, it will be hard to determine the origins of the symptoms and where the responsibility lies.
The problem is deep, and some say the records will probably never be retrieved. Until then, veterans rely upon the testimony of others to prove that they experienced what they did, and that often isn’t easy.
And frankly, it is sickening to think that this is how our nation regards the service of our brave men and women.
To learn more about this very serious issue, visit ProPublica and read award-winning journalists Peter Sleeth and Hal Burnton’s full article.