On Wednesday, October 30, Rep. Louis Capps introduced the Veterans’ Record Reconstruction Act, a bill that will make it easier for veterans to prove their eligibility for certain benefits or decorations. The bill would require that the Department of Defense, in consultation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, develop guidelines for the consideration and use of unofficial sources of information in determining benefits and decoration eligibility when a veteran’s service records are incomplete due to damage caused to the records while in the possession of the Department of Defense.
In 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, Missouri, destroyed 16 million to 18 million Official Military Personnel Files. Because none of the destroyed records had duplicate copies, nor had they been copied to microfilm, it was difficult to determine what had been destroyed. This has led to incomplete records for many of our nation’s World War II, Korean War and Vietnam-era veterans. However, these records are often the only acceptable documentation for benefit and awards determination, leaving millions of veterans in a potential state of limbo.
In response, unofficial sources of information, including post-marked letters, photographs and eyewitness accounts have been used on a case-by-case basis to help reconstruct some veterans’ files. But currently there is no set pathway to guide a veteran through this process. The Veterans’ Record Reconstruction Act would direct the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop clear criteria for the consideration and use of unofficial sources, making it easier to help more veterans get the benefits they deserve.
“It is unacceptable that – three decades later – this tragic fire is still making it difficult for veterans to receive the benefits and recognition they deserve,” Capps said. “While my office has been able to help some veterans on a case-by-case basis, the process of reconstructing incomplete military records can be time-consuming, confusing and costly for veterans. It shouldn’t be that way. The debt we owe to our nation’s veterans is immeasurable, and we need to create a clear pathway to reconstructing their military service records to ensure we are doing all we can to get them the benefits and recognition they have earned.”
“I have worked with numerous people who have been denied benefits as a result of their records being destroyed in the fire,” said Bob Handy, national chair of Veterans United for Truth. “It is shameful to deny former servicemen and women the benefits and recognition that they have earned in service to our country. Rep. Capps is to be commended for taking the steps to right this wrong and provide our veterans with the recognition they deserve.”
“As the local chapter commander in Lompoc, I have met with several veterans that had their claims denied by the VA because of no records to support any claims of military service or injuries incurred,” said Frank Campo of Disabled American Veterans. “Several of these veterans were granted initial ratings by the VA, but when they went to upgrade their disability rating percentage, were denied for no supportable documentation. I believe the passage of this important veteran’s legislation will help those veterans obtain the benefits they deserve.”
The Santa Barbara chapters of the Disabled American Veterans and the AMVETS both sent letters in support of this legislation. Capps – whose district is home to more than 50,000 veterans – has long been a strong supporter of our nation’s veterans, voting for the post-9/11 GI Bill, as well as the largest increase in funding in the history of the Veterans Administration. She is also the author of bipartisan legislation to help Iraq and Afghanistan vets use their medical training to more easily become civilian Emergency Medical Technicians.
The House of Representatives, by way of a resolution and with Veterans Day on the horizon, is encouraging veterans to take advantage of a free service and record a copy of their discharge documents Friday as a way of safeguarding them from loss or destruction, as such happened in the fire of 1973.
“Recording preserves the safety and accessibility to the discharge for the veteran or the family member,” said Barry Grimm, Washington County director of veterans affairs.