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National records center faces backlog of 500,000 requests from military families

The National Personnel Records Center handles records for the country's veterans. After a year of minimal staffing, it faces a backlog of a half-million requests.

SPANISH LAKE, Mo. — Spanish Lake contains one of the most important places in the country for veterans: the National Personnel Records Center off of Dunn Road, part of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Inside the NPRC are the records needed to prove who is eligible for important benefits available for the men and women who have served our country.

The I-Team has learned that right now, the building is becoming an obstacle for families caring for veterans. An enormous backlog in handling records requests has their plans on hold.

Tori Vernau has been planning ahead for the care her father will need toward the end of his life. She sees Roland Blackmarr, 91, regularly on visits to Windsor Estates Retirement Community.

Blackmarr is a veteran who served during the Korean War. Military service is part of their family heritage.

“We go back at least to the Civil War," said Vernau, who is also an Army veteran.

In their family photo album that Vernau shared, there’s a picture of Captain Joseph Jones, an uncle who served at Gettysburg, in his Union Army uniform.

Recently, Vernau wrote to the NPRC to get copies of her father’s records, which would prove he’s entitled to benefits he’ll receive as a veteran.

"I wanted to make certain that whenever he did pass on, there would be a place for him at [Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery],” she said.

Vernau says that the NPRC’s response was that the records couldn’t be accessed.

Vicki Ardrey in Murphysboro, Ill., heard the same response when she asked for proof of her father’s service.

“We were not able to accomplish at all, in probably close to two years, to get the paperwork that we needed," Ardrey said. "It just doesn't seem right or fair to these people who served our country."

Her father, Earl Creath, was a longtime state trooper who served in Korea in 1955.

Before the pandemic, the NPRC was already in a process of recovery, rebuilding after a devastating fire in 1973.

In March, most of its staff were sent home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Slower processing times resulted in a backlog that climbed from 62,000 in March 2020 to 500,000 in April 2021.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) of the 12th District is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who called on the National Archives and Records Administration to reopen the NPRC last fall to handle the waiting requests.

"I don't know why it was not rated as essential. It should have been rated as essential,” Bost said. "The veterans are going to need these records. They need them for everything from burial benefits to health care, home loans."

Bost has a personal connection to the backlog, so the stories of veterans’ families hit home: "I actually went through this because I lost an uncle, and his family didn't have his DD-214."

In March 2020, there were 750 total employees at the NPRC. For four months of 2020, starting in June, only 10% of those employees worked on-site.

The National Archive declined an on-camera interview, but in an email they told the I-Team, "We recently advanced to Phase Two of reopening, which allows for on-site occupancy of up to 25% of our normal capacity.”

They added, “Forty-five percent of NPRC’s workforce is currently working on-site. The remainder are working remotely.”

They went on to say, "We do not have a firm date for returning to 100% on-site capacity."

“Even if they come back, it's going to be 18 to 24 months to try and eliminate the backlog," Bost said. "What we're requesting is that they move quickly to vaccinate the employees and get them back as quick as possible."

That timeline worries Vernau, who will need those records if her father requires skilled nursing. "It's a travesty. There is no one who should have to go through this,” she said.

Bost and 184 other lawmakers are asking President Joe Biden to prioritize getting NPRC employees back to work on-site and to consider hiring additional people to help eliminate the backlog.

To share your records request story, text the word "veteran" to 314-444-5125 or send an email to newstips@ksdk.com.

In response to questions from the I-Team, a National Archives communications staffer wrote:

We would like your audience to know that NPRC’s workforce is passionate about serving veterans. Many members of our workforce are veterans or family members of veterans 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. Before the pandemic, we had built a reputation for being responsive and customer oriented and we were proud of our performance. Most requests were answered in a matter of days. Today is a much different story. We know we are failing to meet expectations and we know the situation is untenable and we are eager to fix it.

The Archivist of the United States is a Vietnam veteran, who also understands first-hand the importance of the work performed at NPRC and he could not be prouder of the NPRC staff, many of whom are also veterans, who have served with distinction throughout the pandemic.  

NARA is taking several actions to mitigate the growth of the backlog without compromising the safety of its workforce. We recently advanced to Phase Two of reopening, which allows for on-site occupancy of up to 25% of our normal capacity. This is the maximum capacity advised for Federal buildings under recent guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget.

We have also expanded the work week at the NPRC to include Saturdays and Sundays, and we implemented a second shift on weekdays, allowing us to double the on-site workforce without exceeding maximum safe occupancy limits. We also partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to expedite the processing of VA requests for records.

We purchased laptop computers and peripheral equipment for the NPRC workforce and we developed and deployed digital delivery functionality. NPRC employees are now able to respond to reference requests that are submitted electronically if digital records are available. This currently represents about 10 percent of NPRC’s reference demands, but we are pursuing multiple strategies to digitize additional records so more requests may be serviced remotely and delivered to requesters electronically.

We purchased equipment to support the on-site digitization of responsive records, and are investing in facility modifications to support social distancing, improve network performance, and stand up a remote call center.  We are also hiring more than 100 additional staff and 70 additional contractors to support backlog reduction.

NARA’s senior leadership designated the NPRC workforce as critical infrastructure employees and issued letters to staff to support priority vaccinations. NARA also entered into an interagency agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer vaccinations to NPRC staff through the VA healthcare system.

Unlike most public and private organizations, NPRC never shut down due to the pandemic. 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 control orders in place. Since the start of the pandemic, NPRC staff have responded to over 190,000 requests from the public and over 220,000 requests from the Department of Veterans Affairs to support the adjudication of disability claims.

NPRC is currently responding to over 10,000 requests per week from the public and another 8,000 requests per week from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Throughout the pandemic, even with the reduced occupancy in the facility, there have been 66 separate instances of on-site exposures or potential exposures which disrupted operations and required deep cleaning of office areas, contact tracing, and quarantine of staff. We have had over 90 staff who have reported testing positive, exhibiting symptoms, or being quarantined after being in close contact with someone who has tested positive. We have had one employee death due to the pandemic.