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

(Part one can be read here.)

‘They Couldn’t Find It’

Chris DeLara is not the type of soldier to wear his heart on his sleeve, but the 1st Cavalry Division’s shoulder patch is tattooed on his right forearm in a swirling piece of body art. Beneath it are the words: “Baghdad, Iraq.”

DeLara, 38, grew up in Albany, N.Y., never dreaming he might someday fight a war. Now, his tour in 2004 and 2005 haunts his every day. Since winning his appeal in March 2011, he is classified as fully disabled by post-traumatic stress and cannot work. He was awarded a stipend of about $30,000 a year and has moved near Knoxville, Tenn., where he recently bought a modest house.

Getting to a stable point wasn’t easy.

DeLara was an administrative specialist, essentially a personnel clerk. But he was repeatedly pulled out of his scrivener’s life for missions as a roof gunner on convoys. It was a time of insurgency and exploding factional violence in Baghdad.

“They told us, ‘This may be your job, but guess what? You’re going to be doing everything,'” he said. “We had many hats. You go to combat, your job is secondary. Combat is first.”

DeLara did not want to discuss his combat experiences, but they are described in part by a judge in the Board of Veterans’ Appeals ruling that approved his PTSD claim.

In the years after his deployment, DeLara told psychiatrists and others who treated him at various times that two of his friends were killed in an insurgent attack on his convoy, and that he was unable to stop one of them from bleeding to death from a ruptured artery.

He said that one his commanders was shot in the head in front of him by insurgents, and reported that he had killed an Iraqi youth who had tried to attack his convoy after it was stopped because of a roadside bomb, according to the judge’s summary.

After his return in 2005, DeLara was diagnosed several times with PTSD or its symptoms, according to VA exam records cited by the appeals judge. He drank and used drugs even though he’d abstained from them in the Army. In 2006, he overdosed on prescription drugs.

DeLara said he lived for a time in a shelter for troubled vets. He and his wife eventually divorced, but he credits her for helping him fight for his claim when he might have given up.

They first applied for a PTSD benefit in 2006, DeLara said. A denial came the next year because his separation document, called a DD-214, did not list any dates of overseas deployment, he said.

“They couldn’t find it. Well my ex-wife, she being as persistent as she is, we started pulling all the stuff” to send to the VA, he said. DeLara dug out the movement order sending his unit to Iraq and the brigade roster with his name on it. He added descriptions of his combat experiences. “Basically what it was, I needed to provide proof,” he said.

But he was denied again, this time because the VA said his symptoms were of bipolar disorder, not PTSD. DeLara said he appealed but got a letter saying there was insufficient evidence that he’d experienced combat stress. The VA told him that it had “no records, none whatsoever” of his time in combat, DeLara said.

“We basically put the whole packet together from scratch again,” DeLara said. This time, he tracked down his former company commander, who was incensed about the VA denials and provided a letter confirming an incident in which DeLara came under enemy fire. Still, two years went by before DeLara received word that his appeal was set for a hearing in January 2011.

Although the judge found in his favor, the ruling notes that, in June 2008, the center responsible for locating his records “made a formal finding of a lack of information to corroborate a stressor for service connection for PTSD.” The center even looked a second time but still came up empty-handed.

DeLara said he still can’t believe it. “I had dates and everything” in the supporting material he and his ex-wife sent to the VA, he said. “The simple fact is that nobody filled out after-action reports,” DeLara said. “There was no record of it.”

Asked how often a search for unit records comes up empty, officials at the VA said they didn’t know — the agency doesn’t track that statistic. A VA spokesperson said missing field records are not a major factor delaying veterans’ claims, however. And some veterans’ advocates agree.

“As long as an officer or a buddy who witnessed the event is willing to sign a notarized statement, that’s good,” said John Waterbrook, who advises vets on disability issues in Walla Walla, Wash.

In 2009, as DeLara was refiling his case, veterans’ groups complained to Congress that soldiers serving as clerks or mechanics unfairly faced a higher burden of proof for PTSD than those with an obvious combat role, even though they faced the same dangers in wars with no front lines.

The VA relaxed its rules the next year, so that a vet’s account of combat stress is proof enough if a VA medical examiner agrees. But while the change helps, it hasn’t sped up claims or made field records less valuable, said Richard Dumancas, the American Legion’s deputy director of claims.

Field records can come into play for other injuries. Take the case of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lorenzo Campbell, a 53-year-old soldier with the Washington Guard who filed a disability claim resulting from a 2004 injury in Iraq.

During a rocket attack, Campbell banged his knee on a concrete bumper after jumping out of a Humvee to find cover. He saw a doctor, but there was no record in his medical files. His knee gradually deteriorated, and he now wears a brace and is unable to run.

Campbell said he tried to get records of the rocket attack from the state Guard but was told they were classified and left on computers in Iraq. He said he offered a letter from another soldier testifying to the incident and swore out a statement himself, but it didn’t suffice.

“I tried to keep fighting it,” he said. “They kept writing me saying they need more information, they need more information.”

Campbell said his disability claim took four years to be approved — a delay that could have been shortened had the records been available. “If you have no records,” he said, “you can be fighting for five or six years and still not prevail.”

Tradition Eroded, Warnings Brushed Aside

Military recordkeeping has been the cornerstone of the nation’s war history for centuries. From the founding of the republic through the Vietnam War, recordkeeping was a disciplined part of military life, one that ensured that detailed accounts of the fighting were available to historians and veterans alike.

The records can hold untold stories that can surface decades after a conflict.

The massacre of civilians by U.S. forces at No Gun Ri, South Korea, in July 1950 came to full national attention only in 1999, nearly 50 years after the fact. Journalists at The Associated Press, working in part with military field records, uncovered the extent of the tragedy. Later, other reporters used the records to show that one purported witness wasn’t really present.

By the Gulf War, however, what had been a long tradition of keeping accurate, comprehensive field records had begun to erode. Old-style paper recordkeeping was giving way to computers. And Army clerks had been reduced in number, leaving officers to take care of records work.

According to the Army’s “Commander’s Guide to Operational Records and Data Collection,” published in 2009, the problem became evident months after the end of Desert Storm, when vets began reporting fatigue, skin disease, weight loss and other unexplained health conditions.

“When the Army began investigating this rash of symptoms, its first thought was to try and establish a pattern of those affected: What units were they in? Where were they located? What operations were they engaged in?” the guide says. “The answers provided by investigators were: ‘We don’t know. We didn’t keep our records.'”

Afterward, the Army created Raho’s records agency and a central records system. As the war on terror began, however, inspections and penalties for recordkeeping at the command level had largely fallen by the wayside, according to Army documents and interviews with officers who helped search for Gulf War records.

Robert Wright, a retired Army historian, said training broke down. “They fight as they train, and they never were trained,” he said.

On March 28, 2003, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ordered retention of all records in the Iraq war. Military records, he wrote, “are of enduring significance for U.S. and world history and have been indispensable for rendering complete, accurate and objective accountings of the government’s activities to the American people.”

But in the combat zones, there were other priorities.

Kelly Howard served as operations officer to Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who was in charge of the Iraq war from 2004 to 2007. Her primary job was archiving Casey’s papers, a task that had been ignored until her arrival in 2006. Casey stored them in a foot locker, among other places.

“The reason so many things got lost … is because so many people at higher levels weren’t requiring it,” Howard said, referring to systematic recordkeeping. “You do what your boss wants you to do. It’s not that anyone said, ‘No, I don’t care about that.’ It’s just so many other things were important.”

Alarms mounted at about the same time as DeLara finished his Baghdad tour.

In 2005, the Army’s Historical Advisory Committee learned that Raho’s agency had not “received any records from units deployed in Afghanistan & Iraq.”

This came as a shock. Members of the group include a mix of civilian historians and officials from the Army War College and Center of Military History.

“So we go through the whole meeting,” said Richard Davis, senior historian at the National Museum of the U.S. Army. “So I ask the records manager point blank. I said, ‘How many records have been retired from overseas by U.S. Army units?’ And the answer was zero.

“By late October the records management people here in Washington had received not a single document from Afghanistan or Iraq,” Davis said. “At that point all the historians looked at each other and said ‘Holy shit! ‘”

Minutes from the committee’s 2006 meeting quote Raho as saying, “Our problems are that the training for Army personnel is incomplete, the responses are uneven, and the records themselves are either incomplete or nonexistent.”

Another member suggested writing a book. “As an institutional history, I think it’s a great idea,” responded historian Pennington, then the committee’s chairwoman. “‘Losing History’: It’s a topic that merits visibility and study.”

The committee included regular warnings about a broken recordkeeping system in its annual reports to the secretary of the Army.

The 2006 report to Secretary Francis J. Harvey said Raho had described “major problems” in records collection, including “the lack of centralized control of data collection, the destruction of records without evaluation, and inadequate communications between Army units and records collection personnel.”

Raho, the report said, “observed that 17 to 23 percent of all Iraq/Afghanistan War veterans will suffer from various forms of PTSD. … Without strong and immediate action to remedy present shortcomings, the Army’s ability to substantiate veteran disability claims will be degraded seriously, with potentially highly troublesome and expensive consequences.”

In its 2008 report, the committee said: “Units are losing their own history. This will create a snowball effect, resulting in problems with awards and heritage activities in the future.”

Pennington signed the report, adding a personal comment: “After six years of service on DAHAC, and now as its chair, I am frankly discouraged by the frequency with which DAHAC has expressed some of the same concerns, and how little progress has been made on some issues.”

Then-Secretary Geren’s office responded with a thank-you letter under his signature. But Geren said in an interview that he was not personally informed about missing records, despite his March 31, 2009, letter. “I’m confident it was not brought to my attention.”

When McHugh, the current secretary, arrived in 2009, he received a committee report reiterating that the system was broken and pleading for resources to fix it. “This has been requested every year since 1997,” the report said.

“It’s probably the most serious problem historians have ever had,” Pennington said in an interview. “I honestly don’t know how we’re going to be writing records-based history in 20 to 30 years.” Typically, field records remain classified for two to three decades after a war, then are transferred to the National Archives.

Although committee members felt unheard, wheels had slowly begun moving in the Army. In 2007, Raho’s agency and the Center of Military History launched the outreach project that discovered the historians were right: Scores of units did not have the records they should.

Because Raho did not have enough staff, the Center of Military History provided detachments for the search. For more than two years they collected field reports, turning up about 5.5 terabytes’ worth.

Some additional records have dribbled in since: Dalessandro, the center’s director, said one brigade of the 1st Armored Division handed over field records from its 2007 Iraq deployment. It’s possible that more might be found from other units, but historians say the chances fade with each year.

Burn Pits: The New Agent Orange?

The demand for the field records isn’t likely to abate as members of Congress ratchet up pressure to investigate exposure to burn pits.

Veterans’ groups say the long-term health impacts could be similar to those of herbicides in Vietnam. Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, said missing field records “could have consequences for veterans for years to come.”

In September, the House passed the Open Burn Pit Registry Act to track veterans with symptoms and find out where they were exposed and for how long. A similar measure is pending in the Senate. The VA currently runs registries for Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome, and last year the Institute of Medicine said more research is needed.

Some veterans’ advocates say field records could provide critical.

“It’s going to be very hard to connect individuals without the field records,” said Dan Sullivan, director of the Sgt. Thomas Sullivan Center, a nonprofit named after his brother, an Iraq vet who died from mysterious health complications.

“It would strike me that they are very important.”

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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