There is a continuing backlog of over 500,000 records requests from veterans still pending at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis. Because of the pandemic, the NPRC was closed for two years due to legitimate concerns for the health and safety of staff of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) which operates the facility. The NPRC only returned to full in-person staffing on March 7, 2022.
Recently, Acting Archivist of the United States Debra Wall sent a letter to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee providing an update on the ongoing work to eliminate the backlog. While the backlog is slowly decreasing from its peak of 603,000, it is notable that NARA was unable to provide an estimate as to when they will be able to clear the outstanding requests which are estimated at approximately 500,000.
This situation is not just a mere inconvenience for our veterans and their families. Veterans rely on their service records to prove eligibility for medical treatment, unemployment assistance, housing, and many other benefits. Sadly, this included eligibility for military funerals for the many elderly veterans who passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On July 14, by an overwhelming bi-partisan vote of 406-21, the House passed HR 7337, the “Access for Veterans to Records Act.” The bill was also included as an amendment (Section 5832, Access for Veterans to Records) to the House-passed version of the National Defense Reauthorization Act (HR 7900).
The bill has two possible roads to passage. On August 22, NCH sent letters to the Senate committees with jurisdiction over the bills (see attached). One letter was sent to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed and Ranking Member James Inhofe of the Senate Armed Services Committee urging them to include this section in S. 4543, the “James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal year 2023 (NDAA)” or to agree to the House language in conference.
A second letter was sent to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters and Ranking Member Rob Portman urging them to markup to the bill expeditiously with the hopes that the bill will pass the Senate so the $60 million in funding it authorizes can be included in the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Fiscal Year 2023 budget.
The bill has two components. First, it requires the National Archives to provide its congressional appropriations and authorizing committees with a detailed plan and target timeframes to eliminate the backlog and strategies to prevent a future records requests backlog. This includes submitting biannual status updates on the backlog and maintaining staffing levels to meet the goal of responding to 90 percent of requests in 20 days or less.
Second, the bill would authorize $60 million for NARA to modernize its information technology infrastructure. The upgrades are necessary for NARA to improve its ability to digitize documents and to prevent future bottlenecks. A large volume of veterans’ records are only available on paper which has made it more difficult to respond to requests quickly.