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 those 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 record-keeping 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 missing records extend to Washington state, where the National Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team, in its largest deployments since World War II, didn’t keep day-to-day records from two tours in Iraq.
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.
“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 says it has taken steps to improve handling of records, including better training and more emphasis from top commanders.
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 erased computer hard drives when they rotated home, wiping out the records stored on them.
In summer 2009, for instance, the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade was ordered “by higher-ups” outside the Guard to erase hard drives before leaving them for replacement troops in Iraq, said Guard spokesman Capt. Keith Kosik.
“It was part of their ‘to-do’ list before leaving the country,” he said.
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 documents. 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 record-keeping 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 and has known about it for years.
“We were just on our knees begging for the Army to do something about it,” said 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 Seattle Times, the Army did not acknowledge that any field reports had been lost or destroyed. In a subsequent email, a spokesman said the Army was “working to correct and improve” its record keeping.
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.
Missing field records aren’t necessarily an obstacle to benefits claims. The Department of Veterans Affairs also looks for medical and personnel records, which can be enough. The VA also has recently relaxed rules for proving post-traumatic stress disorder, to reduce the need for the detailed documentation of field reports.
A VA spokesman said missing field records are not a major factor delaying most claims, 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 represents vets on claims issues in Walla Walla.
But the VA concedes that unit records are often helpful. And assembling a disability case by gathering statements can take much more time, said retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of staff of the Army.
The Army is required to produce records of its actions in war. 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.
By mid-2007, amid alarm raised by official military historians’ reports 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 Iraq 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 62 more 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.
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 record keeping by U.S. Central Command.
After five days, the team concluded that the “volume, location, size and format” of the combined-forces records “was unknown.”
Lt. Col. Donald Walker, the Air Force manager who took over as Centcom records manager in 2009 and who was among the Baghdad inspectors, blamed computer problems and the competing demands of wartime for the lost records.
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.