Lost to history: Missing war records complicate benefit claims by Iraq, Afghanistan veterans (part one)

By Peter Sleeth, Special to ProPublica, and Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times , November 9, 2012

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 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.”

Critical reports from Pennington’s committee went up to three different secretaries of the Army, including John McHugh, the current secretary. McHugh’s office did not respond to interview requests. His predecessor, Peter Geren, said he was never told about the extent of the problem.

“I’m disappointed I didn’t know about it,” Geren said.

In an initial response to questions from ProPublica and the Times, the Army did not acknowledge that any field reports had been lost or destroyed. In a subsequent email, Maj. Christopher Kasker, an Army spokesman, said, “The matter of records management is of great concern to the Army; it is an issue we have acknowledged and are working to correct and improve.”

Missing field records aren’t necessarily an obstacle for benefit claims. The Department of Veterans Affairs also looks for medical and personnel records, which can be enough. The VA has also relaxed rules for proving post-traumatic stress to reduce the need for the detailed documentation of field reports.

But even the VA concedes that unit records are helpful. And assembling a disability case from witness statements can take much more time, said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the retired Army vice chief of staff who worked to combat suicides and improve treatment of soldiers with PTSD and brain injuries.

“You would always love to have that operational record available to document an explosion, but there are other ways,” Chiarelli said. “You can provide witness statements from others who were in that explosion. But it’s going to be more difficult.”

After reviewing findings of the ProPublica-Times investigation, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to report on efforts to find and collect field records.

“Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are unable to document the location and functions of their military units could face the same type of problems experienced by Cold War veterans exposed to radiation, Vietnam era veterans exposed to herbicides and Gulf War veterans exposed to various environmental hazards,” Murray said in a statement.

Already, thousands of veterans have reported respiratory problems and other health effects after exposure to toxic fumes from huge burn pits that were commonly used to dispose of garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan.

DeLara remains embittered about the five years he spent waiting for his disability claim. In an interview at his home in Tennessee, he pointed to Army discharge papers showing he’d received the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, awarded for service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next to that were blank spaces where his deployment dates should have been.

“If they’d had the records in the first place, and all the after-action reports,” DeLara said, “this never would have stretched on as long as it did.”

A Desperate Search for Records

The Army is required to produce records of its actions in war. Today, most units keep them on computers, and a 4,000-soldier brigade can churn out impressive volumes — roughly 500 gigabytes in a yearlong tour, or the digital equivalent of 445 books, each 200 pages long.

Field records include reports about fighting, casualties, intelligence activities, prisoners, battle damage and more, complete with pictures and maps. They do not include personnel or medical records, which are kept separately, or “sigact” reports — short daily dispatches on significant activities, some of which were provided to news organizations by WikiLeaks in 2010.

By mid-2007, amid alarms from historians that combat units weren’t turning in records after their deployments, the Army launched an effort to collect and inventory what it could find.

Army historians were dispatched on a base-by-base search worldwide. A summary of their findings shows that at least 15 brigades serving in the Iraq war at various times from 2003 to 2008 had no records on hand. The same was true for at least five brigades deployed to Afghanistan.

Records were so scarce for another 62 units that served in Iraq and 10 in Afghanistan that they were written up as “some records, but not enough to write an adequate Army history.” This group included most of the units deployed during the first four years of the Afghanistan war.

The outreach effort by the Army was highly unusual. “We were sending people to where they were being demobilized,” said Robert J. Dalessandro, executive director at the Army’s Center of Military History. “We even said … ‘Look we’ll come to you’ — that’s how desperate we got.”

As word of missing records circulated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff became worried enough to order a top-level delegation of records managers from each service branch to Baghdad in April 2010 for an inspection that included recordkeeping by U.S. Central Command.

Centcom coordinated action among service branches in the theater. Among other things, Centcom’s records included Pentagon orders, joint-service actions, fratricide investigations and intelligence reviews, with some records from Army units occasionally captured in the mix.

After five days, the team concluded that the “volume, location, size and format of USF-1 records was unknown,” referring to the acronym for combined Iraq forces. The team’s report to the chiefs cited “large gaps in records collections … the failure to capture significant operational and historical” materials and a “poorly managed” effort to preserve records that were on hand.

In a separate, more detailed memo, two of the team’s members from the National Archives and Records Administration went further.

“With the exception of the Army Corps of Engineers, none of the offices visited have responsibly managed their records,” they wrote. “Staff reported knowledge of only the recently created and filed records and knew little of the records created prior to their deployments, including email. … It is unclear the extent to which records exist prior to 2006.”

Part of the problem was disagreement and lack of coordination about who was responsible for certain records, including investigations into casualties and accidents, according to Michael Carlson, one of the two archivists.

“The Army would say it’s Centcom’s responsibility to capture after-action reports because it’s a Centcom-led operation. Centcom would say it’s an Army responsibility because they created their own records,” Carlson said in an interview. “So there’s finger-pointing … and thus records are lost.”

Nearly a year after the U.S. pullout from Iraq, Centcom said it still is trying to index 47 terabytes of records for storage, or some 54 million pages of documents. It’s not clear if those include anything recovered after a 2008 computer crash the Baghdad team termed “catastrophic.”

Lt. Col. Donald Walker, an Air Force officer who took over as Centcom records manager in 2009, acknowledged that there was confusion about responsibility and confirmed that that some Centcom records may have been lost. In part, he blamed computer problems and the competing demands of wartime.

“Something just had to fall off the plate, there was so much going on,” said Walker, who worked out of Centcom’s Tampa, Fla., headquarters but was among the Baghdad inspectors.

Rather than risk letting classified information fall into the wrong hands, some commanders appeared to buck the orders to preserve records. One Army presentation asserts that in 2005, V Corps, which oversaw all Army units then in Iraq, ordered units to wipe hard drives clean or physically destroy them before redeploying to the States.

“They did not maintain the electronic files. They just purged the servers,” according to the Military History Institute’s Crane, who said he heard similar accounts from more than a dozen veteran officers in classes at the Army War College.

The orders directing Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade to erase hard drives before leaving Iraq came “from on high,” according to unit spokesman Kosik, who said he confirmed the erasures with a senior Guard officer with first-hand knowledge. He said the orders came from outside the Washington Guard.

“There was a lot of confidential information, and they were not allowed to take it out of theater,” said Kosik. “All that was wiped clean before they came home. … It was part of their ‘to-do’ list before leaving country.”

Steven A. Raho III, the Army’s top records manager, said in an interview that he couldn’t estimate what, if any, records might be missing. But Raho said his agency wasn’t responsible for collecting records, only for storing them in the Army’s central records system when individual units handed them over.

Units are not required to do so, he emphasized. “All’s I know is we have some and units have some,” Raho said.

As a test, ProPublica filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for a month’s worth of field records from four units deployed in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. The requests went to Raho’s Records Management and Declassification Agency, which forwarded them to each unit.

One brigade — the 2nd Combat Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division — did not respond, but FOIA officers from the three others said they searched and could find no responsive records.

“I don’t know where any Iraq operational records are,” said Daniel C. Smith, a privacy act officer at Fort Carson, Colo., who handled the request for the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division. “I’ve never been able to find out where they went.”

At Fort Riley, Kan., FOIA officer Tuanna Jeffery looked for records from the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division. “Prior to and upon the inactivation of the unit on March 15, 2008, that unit had turned in absolutely no records,” she responded.

In a follow-up email, Jeffery said the entire 1st Armored Division did not turn in any field records through 2008.

(Continued in part two).

* * *

Are you a veteran who can’t obtain your military field records? Tell us your story

Versions of this story will be published by The Seattle Times and Stars and Stripes.

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.

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Comments

  1. Rather proves the point that the U.S.Military Officer Corps are incompetent, along with the idea that civilian contractors can do the job that the military used to do. But, what else might we expect from a government who has allowed the private business establishment carte blanche? If this doesn’t open up the eyes of those idiots who sit on their asses, it certainly will when the shooting starts here at home.