A bipartisan group of 233 members of Congress is urging the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis to start processing military records requests after a near-complete pause in operations due to the pandemic.
Led by Reps. Van Taylor, R-Texas, and Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., the group expressed dismay that the center, which falls under the National Archive and Records Administration, pared its staff down to less than 10% of full strength Nov. 7 and announced its effective closure except for emergencies. This follows a similar closure from March 23 to June 23 this year due to COVID-19.
There's no indication from the center on when full operations will resume.
"While we remain in this state, we will continue servicing requests associated with medical treatments, burials, and homeless veterans seeking admittance to a homeless shelter," NPRC officials wrote on the center's website.
While most records for veterans who left the service after 2000 are available electronically, those whose records exist only on paper rely on human assistance to access them. Personnel records can be required for disability claims, proof of veteran status for other benefits, documentation in lawsuits and personal archives.
"Thousands of veterans and their families have faced hardships over the last nine months, but getting the benefits they have earned should not be one of them," Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement accompanying the letter. "It is imperative that the National Personnel Records Center continues to carry out their important work on behalf of the men and women they serve to ensure our heroes receive their records in a timely fashion. I am proud to join my friends and colleagues in advocating for a safe return to normal operations and a plan to address the backlog in requests as soon as possible."
The lawmakers wrote that some of their constituents had already been waiting months for records, and were concerned that there is no communicated timeline or plan for their requests to be processed. They asked in the letter for new policies to address "the growing backlog of requests" and a plan and timeline for resolution, albeit one that observes COVID-19 precautions.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House minority leader, also joined the letter.
"As a veteran, Congressman Van Taylor knows how critical timely access to NPRC records is to the veterans in Texas's 3rd Congressional District and across the country; he has been a central leader on this issue," McCarthy said in a statement. "I thank Van for highlighting this important problem, and look forward to working with our colleagues in Congress to ensure that the NPRC has the funding and resources needed to modernize their records system and adequately address the backlog while prioritizing staff safety."
A query to the National Archives about the size of the backlog and the letter did not receive an immediate response.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a significant challenge for all Americans and the Federal agencies who serve them, and efforts to protect workforce health and safety are absolutely of top importance," the members of Congress wrote. "However, as more time continues to elapse, these delays are causing significant anxiety and hardship for many of our nation's veterans."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.