I am sorry to inform you that the reason you have not heard anything from us in 14 months is because your active duty medical records have become lost. At this time, there is nothing we can do. Sorry, you’re S.O.L.
Now, that was not a quote, or a real letter, but the scenario is very likely familiar to many veterans who have been trying to have a medical benefits or disability compensation claim approved, but have run into delay after delay after delay until finally they are told that the paperwork, be it the initial claim, service records, medical history, or any other bit of paperwork is lost.
As an initial forewarning to anyone who will be submitting a claim in the future, send the VA a copy of your records, never ever send your originals. Even if you are told, for some reason, that only the “original doctor’s report will be vaild.” That is why we have notary publics. Go to a bank, make a copy, have the notary certify the copy. Often, banks will do this for free or only a few dollars for account holders, and for a small $5-$10 fee for non account holders.
Here is an important date: October 16, 1992. Why is this important? The way that active duty medical records were archived upon the servicemember’s discharge changed in this year. The Army began the trend, and the other services followed suit within the following years.
If you ended service before these dates, it is quite easy to gain a copy of your active duty medical records because they are contained within your personnel file with the National Archives. You can make an online request, or print and mail in a form to the National Archives to receive a copy of your records. The records are free for veterans or their next of kin.
The following are the dates for each branch of service.
Army, all components: October 16, 1992
Air Force, Active Duty: May 1, 1994
Air Force, Reserve and National Guard: June 1, 1994
Navy, all components: January 31, 1994
Marine Corps, all components: May 1, 1994
Coast Guard, active duty and reservists with 90 days of active duty service for training: April 1, 1998.
It has been two decades since 1992, and a lot of veterans became, well, veterans, in that time. For them, it is not quite as easy to find another copy of active duty medical records. There are a few avenues of approach though, some requiring more work than others.
When you are told, “your records are lost,” the first thing you may wonder is how it is possible to lose a physical object that has a set route, and this same route is taken by hundreds of thousands of similar objects all the time. Therefore, isn’t the process somewhat foolproof by now? Apparently not. Your first option though, is to start at the very beginning of your claim process. Gather the information you have about the date you submitted your request, and to what office. Call that office directly. Inquire about any confirmation records they may have that your claim was submitted, as well as any records as to where it when. Get the contact information for where your claim went. Call that office and repeat the process. If the trail seems pretty clear until suddenly someone says “we don’t have a record of you at all, to us you don’t exist.” You have likely found the disconnect in the processing of your claim. Either the previous place never actually sent them, or the clueless office never received them, or, even more absurd, the clueless office might have received them and, by oversight, not recorded receiving them, and therefore your claim is languishing in some pile that hasn’t been looked through. If you have the fortitude to pursue this avenue of searching, you deserve a medal.
The next less tongue-in-cheek method of finding a copy of your active duty medical records is to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs Records Management Center in St. Louis, Missouri. After the dates listed above, the service branches began sending the medical records of their former members to this VA Records Management Center. As a quote from the archives.gov website, which handles the military personnel records, the responsibility for finding your active duty medical records rests completely on the VA
…the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Records Management Center , St. Louis, MO, maintains the active duty health records or manages their whereabouts when on loan within the VA. Call the VA toll free number at 1-800-827-1000 to identify the current location of specific health records and to find out how to obtain releasable documents or information.
It is much more likely that this Records Management Center will be able to help you find your lost records than just a small city office.
So in brief, don’t take “we lost them” as the final answer. There are ways to find those lost medical records.
Photo thanks to Claire_Sambrook under creative common license on Flickr.