By Peter Sleeth, Special to ProPublica
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 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 recordkeeping.
The moves follow inquiries from the committee's leaders 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 but also extended to U.S. Central Command in Iraq.
McHugh, in his letter to committee leaders, said that while the Army had kept some of the required records, "we acknowledge that gaps exist."
And in an enclosure responding to specific questions from the committee, McHugh confirmed that among the missing records are nearly all those from the 82nd Airborne Division, which was deployed multiple times during the wars.
McHugh's letter was addressed to Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and the panel's senior Democrat Michael Michaud of Maine, 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.
A call and an email to Miller were not returned. Maj. Chris Kasker, an Army spokesman, said McHugh was not available for further 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."
"In addition to providing support for health-related compensation claims, these documents will help capture this important period in Army history," he wrote.
But 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.
In one 2010 report, investigators found infighting between the Army and U.S. Centcom over recordkeeping in Iraq and "the failure to capture significant operational and historical" materials in the theater.
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 response to the congressmen said Army rules delegate recordkeeping responsibility to commanders at all levels, but they weren't always followed.
"Although numerous directives have been issued to emphasize the importance of the preservation of records," the response says, "these directives unfortunately were often overcome by other operational priorities and not fully overseen by commanders."
"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.
Under regulations, individual units are charged with maintaining their records under the direction of the Army's Records and Declassification Agency (RMDA), which archives some records but is not required to collect them. Separately, the Center of Military History sends trained historians into combat zones to collect materials to write the official history of the Army campaigns.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the historians found themselves becoming de facto archivists in combat, chasing down what field reports they could find. Their reports of missing or inadequate recordkeeping prompted alarms and complaints from military and civilian historians but little corrective action from Army brass.
Emails obtained by ProPublica show that the Center of Military History and RMDA have long argued about which Army branch should be gathering different records. 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.
Calls to the Center for Military History were not returned. Officials at the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, which had called on the Army to reconstruct missing field records, were not immediately available for comment.
A representative of the nation's largest wartime veterans' service 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 recreated by reaching out to affected veterans, he said.
Historians say the recordkeeping 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.
The message didn't always get through. In the case of the 82nd Airborne Division, with two deployments to Iraq and several more to Afghanistan, it appears that few records exist and there is low likelihood more will surface.
According to McHugh's letter, military history detachments picked up some 82nd Airborne records in Afghanistan. However, "Subsequent attempts to collect documents from the division and its brigades during operations in Iraq and after redeployment to their home station were largely unsuccessful."
Last year, ProPublica and the Times filed Freedom of Information Act requests for field records from several Army units and were told none could be found. The units included the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division.
The two congressmen also inquired about the 1st Armored Division. McHugh's response states that, from 2003 to 2008 when the division deployed in Iraq, "some of their records and historical documents appear to have gone missing." An Army division usually contains between 10,000 and 18,000 soldiers.