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Sunday, November 18, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 p.m.
U.S. House sets hearing on missing war records
By Peter Sleeth
Special to ProPublica
Missing military records from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — detailed in a ProPublica-Seattle Times investigation over Veterans Day — will be the subject of a congressional hearing next month, the spokeswoman for a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee said Friday.
Separately, Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, called on Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to respond to findings of the investigation, which detailed how dozens of Army units and U.S. Central Command destroyed or failed to keep field reports.
Michaud sits on the House Veterans Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, which added the topic to a Dec. 4 session about the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) effort to move its claims and benefit record-keeping systems into the digital era.
ProPublica and The Times found that some veterans were denied disability benefits or faced delays in some cases because field records were unavailable to prove that injuries were combat related. The stories focused on missing Army and Centcom field reports rather than those created and kept by the VA.
Michaud called for a joint study by the VA and the Pentagon into the impact of missing field records on veterans' benefit claims and the ability to study wartime health risks, such as concern about exposure to toxic particulates from open-air burn pits used to incinerate garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We cannot allow these lost records to lead to the same gaps in knowledge and care that our Vietnam veterans face with Agent Orange and our First Gulf War veterans face with medically unexplained illnesses," wrote Michaud. "We need to get to the bottom of this in order to understand the full scope of the problem and ensure it doesn't happen again."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has also asked Panetta's office to report on the status of efforts to find and collect field records from Iraq and Afghanistan. A spokesman for Murray, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said Panetta has not yet responded.
Among the witnesses being called to the Dec. 4 hearing are representatives from the Department of Defense, the VA, the National Archives and Records Administration and veterans' advocates, a subcommittee spokeswoman said.
The final list of witnesses will be released later, but David Hobson, executive director of the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, said he had been asked to testify about specific examples of veterans who have had to deal with lost field records and the impact it had on them.
Despite assurances from the VA that veterans can work around missing field records, Hobson said, "oftentimes the other methods don't work out so well, if at all."
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