En español | The federal agency responsible for providing military records to older veterans and their surviving spouses seeking pension, health care and other benefits is facing a backlog of approximately 500,000 requests after being forced to operate at a reduced capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since March 2020, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), an agency of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, has limited its in-person operations to fulfilling only emergency requests associated with life-threatening medical treatments, burials, homeless veterans and “comparable emergencies.” Those with nonemergency requests, such as medal replacements, administrative corrections or records research, have been asked to put those requests on hold.
Older veterans tend to rely on paper records to prove eligibility because most digital records are available only for veterans who separated from the military after 2002, according to the NPRC.
This issue has raised concerns at organizations that serve veterans, which fear that extended wait times can be detrimental to those in need of assistance, especially if they are seeking help to offset the burdens brought on by the pandemic.
“These individuals are in dire need of these benefits and services to obtain basic human needs like housing, food, prioritization for COVID-19 vaccinations, specialized therapy for combat and military sexual trauma victims, and medication,” said the Legal Counsel for the Elderly in a recent letter to the NPRC.
On March 29, the St. Louis-based records center was able to expand its on-site staffing to 25 percent, the maximum possible under current federal guidance, increasing its ability to complete additional routine requests like those involving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Home Loan Guaranty program.
Before the pandemic, the center had about 56,000 pending cases. But after experiencing an increased number of emergency requests combined with its reduced operating status, that backlog grew to approximately 500,000. Even at full operating capacity, it would take an estimated 18 to 24 months to clear that many requests.
“Many members of our workforce are veterans themselves, and they truly understand the importance of our work and have been frustrated with the toll the pandemic has taken on our ability to serve veterans,” NPRC director Scott Levins told AARP. “We know we are failing and we know the situation is untenable, and we are eager to fix it.”
The VA announced on April 1 that it would assist in vaccinating National Archives and Records Administration staff who assist in processing VA claims. Meanwhile, the NPRC is in the process of using funds it received from Congress to hire more than 100 new staff members and increase the number of contractors who support its operations.
“Our plan to eliminate the backlog involves leveraging technology to become more efficient,” Levins said. “We want to provide service that exceeds our pre-pandemic level and to otherwise be prepared for any future situations that could impact our ability to provide veterans and their families with timely service.”
The NPRC began processing nonemergency requests for records that are available electronically and that staff working from home can fulfill — about 10 percent of requests overall. However, an email address must be provided so the corresponding documents can be delivered securely. Requests that go to on-site staff and are then sent via the U.S. mail take much longer, Levins said.
Once operations return to a normal level and emergency requests are fulfilled, the center will focus on queries for report of separation documents (DD Form 214), because those are usually related to benefits and can be completed quickly. Later, submissions for genealogical, ancestry and medal replacement cases will be completed in the order they were received.
“NPRC never shut down due to the pandemic,” said Levins. “Recognizing the importance of the work for which we are responsible, we have always maintained an on-site presence to continue servicing our most urgent requests, even when state and local governments had movement control orders in place.”
Safeguarding the future
The center has implemented an upgrade to its online tool, eVetRecs, which allows requests to be submitted electronically, removing the need for a physical signature and allowing individuals to check on the status of their query as it’s processed. Furthermore, the agency is developing a way to digitize certain documents in its record storage areas as they are being retrieved.
“If a person is only looking for one document and it’s easily identifiable, we can send people out into the warehouses to pull the records with imaging devices, and they can image it right on the spot,” Levins said.
Looking ahead, the VA has received funding to digitize all the records from World War II onward, but administrative and legal challenges must first be met.
“When we achieve this, we will become more efficient than we were before the pandemic or at any other time,” he said.
Tips for filing a military service records request
- When possible, submit requests electronically via the eVetRecs system. That way you can determine if the NPRC received your request, and check on its status as it gets processed.
- If you cannot submit a request electronically, send a Standard Form 180. Make sure everything is printed legibly; providing an email address can increase your chances of getting a faster response.
- Provide as much information as possible. This can limit the extra steps the center has to take to find your records and allow you to get your documents faster.
- If you separated from the military before the late 1960s, provide your service number to help locate your records. If you cannot find it, indicate that you could not instead of leaving the box blank.
- Do not let access to records from the NPRC delay your submission of a VA claim. If you file a claim with the VA, they will also request your record from the NPRC.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.