A joint investigation by ProPublica and The Seattle Times has found a widespread lapse in record-keeping from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, leaving some disabled veterans hard-pressed to document their combat injuries, and future military strategists wondering what lessons might have been learned.

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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.

Loss for history

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, a Guard spokesman, Capt. Keith Kosik, said.

“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 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 benefit 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 (PTSD), to reduce the need for the detailed documentation of field reports.

Asked recently how often a search for unit records comes up empty, officials at the VA said they didn’t know — the agency doesn’t track that statistic. 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 even 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.

“You would always love to have that operational record available to document an explosion, but there are other ways,” Chiarelli said. “You can provide witness statements from others who were in that explosion, but it’s going to be more difficult.”

Claim delayed 4 years

Take the case of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lorenzo Campbell, a 53-year-old soldier with the Washington National Guard, who says his benefits were delayed by a lack of records.

Campbell was in Iraq in 2004 when a rocket attack on his Humvee forced him to spring for cover while carrying 60 pounds of gear. Diving into a bunker, he slammed his knee on a concrete barrier. He said his ballooned knee was looked at by a doctor the next day, but no record was made.

After he returned home, his knee gradually deteriorated. He was diagnosed with torn knee cartilage and a damaged kneecap. He is unable to run.

At first, Campbell said, he tried to get records of the rocket attack from the state Guard, but was told they were classified and left on computers in Iraq. He said he offered a letter from another soldier testifying to the incident and swore out a statement himself, but it did not suffice.

“I tried to keep fighting it,” he said. “They kept writing me saying they need more information, they need more information.”

Campbell said his disability claim took four years to be approved, a delay that could have been shortened had records been available. “If you have no records, you can be fighting for five or six years and still not prevail.”

Army investigation

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, some of which were provided to news organizations by WikiLeaks in 2010.

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, blamed computer problems and the competing demands of wartime for the lost records.

“Something just had to fall off the plate, there was so much going on,” said Walker, who was among the Baghdad inspectors.

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.

Invisible wounds

Chris DeLara, 38, grew up in Albany, N.Y., never dreaming he might someday fight a war. Now his tour in 2004 and 2005 haunts him every day.

In Iraq, DeLara was an administrative specialist, essentially a clerk. But he was repeatedly pulled out of his scrivener’s life for missions as a roof gunner on convoys at a time of exploding factional violence in Baghdad.

In an interview, DeLara said he did not want to detail his combat experiences, but they were described in part by a judge in the Board of Veterans’ Appeals ruling that approved his PTSD claim.

In the years after his deployment, DeLara told psychiatrists and others who treated him at various times that two of his friends were killed in an insurgent attack on his convoy, and that he was unable to stop one of them from bleeding to death from a ruptured artery.

He said that one of his commanders was shot in the head in front of him by insurgents, and reported that he had killed an Iraqi youth who tried to attack his convoy after it was stopped because of a roadside bomb, according to the judge’s summary.

After his return in 2005, DeLara was diagnosed several times with PTSD or its symptoms, according to VA exam records cited by the appeals judge. He drank and used drugs, even though he’d abstained in the Army.

DeLara said he lived for a time in a shelter for troubled vets. He and his wife eventually divorced, but he credits her for helping him fight for his claim when he might have given up.

They first applied for a PTSD benefit in 2006, DeLara said. The VA turned him down the next year, saying it had “no records, none whatsoever” of his time in combat, DeLara said.

With his wife’s help, DeLara dug out the movement order sending his unit to Iraq, and the brigade roster with his name on it. He added descriptions of his combat experiences, and sent in the documents.

But he was denied again. He said he again was told the VA couldn’t find any combat records.

“We basically put the whole packet together from scratch again,” DeLara said. This time, he tracked down his former company commander, who was incensed about the VA denials and provided a letter confirming an incident in which DeLara had come under enemy fire.

Still, two years went by before a judge found in DeLara’s favor, in March 2011, classifying him as fully disabled by post-traumatic stress and unable to work.

DeLara gets a stipend of about $30,000 a year. He has moved near Knoxville, Tenn., where he recently bought a modest house.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com