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Pandemic paperwork backlog leaves Veterans in limbo

Published: Apr. 12, 2021 at 2:35 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 12, 2021 at 7:57 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Veterans across the country are struggling to access the benefits earned in service to the country, affecting how they live and how they’re remembered when they die. A records backlog is at the heart of the issue and it’s growing by the day.

Melissa Hoaglan of Hamilton, Ohio wrestled with her emotions as she remembered her father-in-law. “It’s still just really fresh,” she explained as she worked to hold back tears.

74 -year-old Vietnam vet Jack Hoaglan passed away in December after catching coronavirus.

A bureaucratic backlog of records requests prevented him from receiving a funeral with military honors.

Across the country, families like Hoaglan’s are waiting on about half-a-million records requests. The delays primarily impact those who left military service before 2002. More recent records should be able to be accessed digitally.

Getting copies of paper documents normally takes days, now it’s months, some could wait more than a year. Without the paperwork, veterans can’t access health care, disability, and other military benefits.

“We asked [our veterans] to do the ultimate,” Hoaglan said, “and we can’t even get them their basic benefits?”

The National Personnel Records Center, run by the National Archives, manages the files.

Prior to the pandemic, the NPRC backlog amounted to about 50,000 document requests. Closing the office last March led that number to balloon. The Center has returned to partial staffing but still falls further behind every day.

“I’m proud of the efforts of our employees who have worked hard to provide the best service possible during a very difficult time,” said NPRC Director Scott Levine in a March statement. “We’ve all been frustrated at the situation and that we haven’t been able to do more, and do it faster, and I am really glad that conditions have improved so we can bring more staff and contractors to begin righting the ship.”

Congressman Warren Davidson’s expectations recently visited the NPRC. He said he was disappointed not to find more progress.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said of the backlog and efforts to address it.

Congress already gave the center emergency funding to resume operations in the midst of the pandemic. Asked whether Congress had tools beyond additional public pressure, and allocating more funding, Davidson said it may be time send in the National Guard to help with the filing.

“A military sense of urgency is required for this mission,” he noted.

The National Archives is using additional cash from Congress to digitize documents and get the process up to speed. But it’s a big job, all that paperwork would reach the top of the uprights in an NFL stadium if you stacked it endzone to endzone.

Spokespeople for the National Archive estimate it will take 18-24 months to get through the current backlog once fully staffed. It’s unclear when they’ll be able to get the full workforce back into the center.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Davidson, have asked for a meeting with President Biden’s chief of staff in hopes of funding a faster fix for the backlog.

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