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.
WELLSVILLE, Kan. -- The day after Jim Butler learned his son had died in Iraq in 2003, a U.S. Army casualty officer showed up at the family's small ranch to explain what happened.
Your son was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the city of As Samawah, the officer said. But he had no other details to offer, nothing about how the fighting came about or what Sgt. Jacob Butler was doing when he was killed. For the grieving father, it wasn't enough. The question of how Jake died gripped him in the days after, in part because he'd made an unusual promise before his son left: If you are killed, I will go and stand where you fell.
So Butler made a simple request to the Army for Jake's casualty report. Rules require one when soldiers are killed in a war zone. Unit commanders are supposed to create and maintain them, along with numerous other field records.
"They said, 'We'll have to see,'" Butler recalled, "because one should have been made."
The 1st Armored Division Jacob Butler's unit is among those lacking many of its records. Documents and interviews show that dozens of units are in similar shape, and that U.S. Central Command in Iraq also lost records related to joint-service operations in the theater.
History is cheated when front-line records are lost. And without them, veterans can face delays securing benefits for combat-related disabilities.
But missing records can have another after effect, creating uncertainty and confusion as survivors struggle with the heartbreak of loss.
Family members of soldiers who die in war are entitled to casualty reports if they request them. That fact did not help Jim Butler. He pressed the Army repeatedly in the months after Jake's death for his casualty report, but got a series of conflicting and perplexing responses instead.
"I felt hurt because I felt they should be truthful," Butler said of the Army. "Is that too much to ask?
"If it turned out Jake was killed by friendly fire, it would hurt, but I could handle it," he said. "If he died by suicide, it would hurt, but I could handle it."
The truth turned out to be far different, but Butler had to dig out the story himself. And he never saw the most complete official account of Jake's death until a reporter provided it.