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Originally published July 12, 2013 at 8:10 PM | Page modified July 13, 2013 at 11:03 AM

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Army admits fault, seeks lost war-zone records

The Army confirmed to Congress that commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to keep required field records and promises such foul-ups won’t happen again. The moves follow inquiries from Congress after a ProPublica and Seattle Times investigation last year.

Special to ProPublica; Seattle Times staff reporter

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The U.S. 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 in a separate letter to leaders of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said the service also is taking immediate steps to clarify responsibility for wartime record-keeping.

The moves follow inquiries from the committee 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, including the Washington National Guard, where the 81st Brigade Combat Team didn’t preserve many of the day-to-day unit records from two tours in Iraq.

McHugh confirmed that among the missing records are nearly all those from the 82nd Airborne Division, which was deployed a number of times during the wars.

McHugh’s letter was addressed to Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee’s chairman, and Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the ranking Democrat on the panel who said in an email Friday 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 their report last year, 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.

That appears to be what happened to Iraq unit records for the Washington Guard’s 81st Brigade, according to Capt. Keith Kosik, a Washington Guard spokesman and military historian.

In the summer of 2009, as the unit rotated home from the second deployment, the 81st Brigade was ordered “by higher-ups” outside the Guard to erase hard drives before leaving computers for replacement troops.

“It was part of their ‘to-do’ list before leaving the country,” Kosik said last year.

Kosik is now deployed to Afghanistan as a historian helping to document the war, and could not be reached on Friday for comment.

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.”

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 letter said Army rules require commanders at all levels to maintain records, but the rules weren’t always followed. “Steps are being taken now to make sure this does not happen again,” the letter says.

McHugh’s order launching an Army-wide search for records also shifts responsibility for maintaining them in a new central repository.

The Army’s Center of Military History and its Records and Declassification Agency have long argued about which Army branch should be gathering different records, according to emails obtained by ProPublica.

Now, McHugh’s memo orders commands to send whatever they have to the center, which is to assess what the Army does and does not have by Dec. 31.

Historians say the record-keeping lapses echo the 1990-91 Iraq war, when the Army spent several years and millions of dollars to reconstruct the whereabouts of troops suffering from Gulf War Syndrome illnesses.

In 2003, as U.S. attacks on Iraq began anew, fresh orders went out about the importance of keeping operational records — explicitly citing the Gulf War failures to reinforce why records matter for veterans’ benefits and unit history.

A representative of the nation’s largest wartime veterans group, the American Legion, called for more congressional hearings on the issue.

“It’s sad. My overall impression is, it’s not good enough,” Rich Dumancas, the Legion’s deputy director of claims, said of McHugh’s order.

Missing reports need to be re-created by reaching out to affected veterans, he said.

Hal Bernton: 206-423-1898 or hbernton@seattletimes.com.

Peter Sleeth: pdsleeth@yahoo.com.

More on the topic at ProPublica.org,

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