Republicans raise alarm over severe records backlog for veterans costing benefits: 'Utter tragedy'
EXCLUSIVE – House Republicans are shining a light on a major records backlog at a government archives agency that has meant thousands of veterans and their families are waiting months, and in some cases years, for paperwork that is necessary to receive benefits.
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee are calling for a congressional hearing on the backlog of 500,000 record requests at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). The major delay in obtaining records, including military DD-214 separation forms needed to obtain veterans' benefits, worsened during the coronavirus pandemic when federal workers were sent home and unable to physically process the requests for records in a timely fashion.
"America's veterans fought for us, but the federal government isn’t even willing to return to work to provide veterans with their records," Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement to Fox News. "The result: almost half a million requests from veterans and their families delayed for months. This is an utter tragedy and a poor reflection on the gratitude we should pay to the brave men and women and their families who served our country."
Comer and 19 other House Republicans authored a letter Monday, obtained first by Fox News, to the chair of the committee, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., calling on leadership to convene a congressional hearing on the veterans' backlog. They already had a bipartisan briefing last month with the records administration (NARA), but the Republicans say the agency must be held accountable in a public committee hearing to ensure such a backlog never happens again.
"It is completely unacceptable that America’s veterans and their families are waiting—in some cases over a year—to obtain service records for benefits they earned through their service to our country," said Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., in a statement to Fox. "While the National Personnel Records Center was forced to reduce its on-site operations due to COVID-19 restrictions, it’s evident that there was no plan to ensure that records requests would continue to be fulfilled in a timely manner."
The NPRC facility in St. Louis holds over 2 million cubic feet of military personnel and medical records, which only exist in paper form and cannot be accessed remotely. In a given year, the agency responds to 1.2 million requests for copies of these records. Many requests are from veterans and their families needing to prove honorable service to obtain benefits, such as burial honors, Veterans Affairs (VA) disability claims, homeless veterans' programs and medical services.
The backlog has taken its toll on families. For instance, 90-year-old Susana Mallinson has been waiting over a year for her husband Frank's military service records from the NPRC facility in St. Louis.
Mallinson's husband served in Japan in the U.S. Army during World War II as a radio engineer and died in 2000. She is barely making ends meet, surviving on just over $1,000 a month while waiting for her husband's records to apply for spousal benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In the meantime, Mallinson is forced to live below the poverty line.
"It's very stressful. At times I cannot sleep, thinking 'why is it so hard? Something that belongs to me, something that is there,'" Mallinson told Fox News recently.
Other family members are awaiting paperwork to identify human remains.
Clay Bonnyman, the grandson of Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, is among those still waiting for answers. His grandfather was killed in action in the Battle of Tarawa during World War II. Bonnyman went to Tarawa and found his grandfather’s remains, but is still waiting to obtain his records – something Clay Bonnyman said might never happen.
"There's tons and tons of veterans, tons and tons of families that are trying to get records, that those requests, they're just going to pile up and pile up and pile up and who knows if they'll ever be fulfilled," Bonnyman told Fox News in a previous interview.
The National Archives confirmed to Fox News the records backlog stands at about 500,000 requests and acknowledged the federal government's coronavirus on-site staff reductions produced the major wait times for documents.
To mitigate the pandemic imposed occupancy limits, the agency expanded the workweek to include Saturdays and Sundays and implemented a second shift on weekdays, but "despite these efforts, we could not keep up with incoming requests during the pandemic, and a backlog developed," according to a statement released by the National Archives to Fox News.
Relief may be on the way. The agency is now transitioning to post-pandemic operations and employees are being recalled back to on-site work starting July 19. They are also bringing on more than 100 new staffers, doubling the number of supporting contractors on-site and working to digitize records requests, the National Archives told Fox News.
"Reducing the backlog of veterans records requests and returning to our pre-pandemic levels of service is our top priority at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), as it is for the Archivist of the United States, himself a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War," the statement said, in reference to Archivist David S. Ferriero who oversees the records division. "We are passionate about our mission and committed to providing our nation’s veterans with the high-quality service they earned and deserve."