NARA seeks DOD's help in addressing records request backlog

Many records housed in a St. Louis facility are critical to veterans' benefits applications but can't be accessed remotely.

piles of documents (Nuk2013/

A bipartisan group of lawmakers are backing the National Archives and Records Administration in their request for help from the Department of Defense in tackling the backlog of requests for veterans records needed as part of veterans compensation and benefits claims.

In a letter sent to DOD Secretary on Thursday, they asked him to "prioritize" a request made earlier this month by NARA for help in pandemic recovery operations at NARA's National Personnel Records Center (NPRF) in St. Louis.

"Veterans and their families depend on timely access to personnel records in order to receive life-saving medical care, emergency housing assistance, proper military burials, and other vital benefits earned through service to our country," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge DOD to support the NPRC's work and to ensure that we uphold our solemn pledge to care to care for our nation's veterans"

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ranking Member James Comer (R-Ky.) and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Ranking Member Mike Bost (R-Ill.) are among the signers of the letter.

The records in question play a key role in the process of determining disability compensation and pension claims for veterans. Veterans Benefits Administration has seen its backlog of pending claims double during the pandemic.

Pandemic workplace protocols at NARA facilities slowed NARA's processing of paper military records. The St. Louis facility is now operating at 25% of its workforce capacity in-person, the NRPC website says. NARA announced it would pursue a phased-in expansion of onsite workers on March 8.

NPRC has a backlog of 500,000 delayed public reference requests, most from veterans applying for federal benefits, and 400,000 official military personnel folders needing to be filed or refiled, wrote NARA's Chief Operating Officer William Bosanko in a May 10 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He requested personnel support from DOD for these efforts.

At a hearing on May 12, a Veterans Benefits Official told lawmakers that the agency is under pre-pandemic working inventory levels of records claims. The Department of Veterans Affairs worked with NARA during the pandemic on solutions like adding additional high and weekend shifts to address the VBA's need for records, said Thomas Murphy, the acting under secretary for Benefits at the VBA.

VBA wants to use funding from the American Rescue Plan for record scanning so that paper-based requests can be processed more quickly, he said. NARA's chief has also said that the agency is working with the VA to digitize records so that they can be accessed remotely.