Using the National Archives to Improve Your VA Disability Claim

By Rory Berry, Navy Veteran

The key to a successful VA Disability Claim is providing sufficient proof that an injury occurred or was aggravated in service.  Unfortunately, a member’s service record and medical records may lack enough corroborating evidence to convince the VA of the nexus.  Fortunately, Veterans can utilize other types of records to provide proof of things that happened.

In addition to buddy statements, Veterans can also utilize other kinds of service records, such as photographs from events, cruise books or yearbooks, plans-of-the-day, unit sitreps, deck logs, maintenance and watch logs.  If a Veteran is lucky enough to still be in possession of such pieces of proof, it can significantly improve their case?

But what if they don’t have the proof, but know that it exists?

Where Military Records are Stored

Many Veterans don’t realize that they can utilize the national archives to retrieve records in support of their VA Disability Appeal.  Each branch actually has its own archives Command that can help support past claims with documentation.

Most of these services will maintain records for 10-50 years before passing them along to the National Archives in Washington D.C., where longer term records are stored.

What is Kept in the Archives

As a Sailor, I am most familiar with the Navy process, for which the NHHC can be useful for collecting evidence.  The NHHC, for example, keeps deck logs from every ship for 30 years before passing them to the National Archives.  Deck logs will contain all major events aboard a ship and may contain details about an incident.  For example, an entry that reads “1831:  Medical called to aft engineering;   1835: Medical reports SN Thomas in good condition, possible leg injury” would be useful for the Sailor to demonstrate that their leg injury did occur in service, even if no medical record were created later.  For appealing a VA Rating Decision, even such a small detail could be critical.

The NHHC also keeps Command Operations Reports (CORs), formerly known as Command History Reports.  These reports are annual submissions by all Commands listed in the Standard Navy Distribution List (SNDL) which chronicle the operational year of the Unit, and are intended to contain all major Sitreps, injuries, casualties, and other details.   CORs are kept for 50 years until being sent to the National Archives.

There are also photos maintained in Photos Section of the Navy Archives, but it is considered an unofficial record.  Official Navy photos are kept at the Defense Imagery center, but these are often the photos of key officials only.

Similarly, cruise books are not considered an official record and hence there is no major effort by the Archives to keep a full collection.  However, the NHHC does have a small collection that may happen to contain the exact cruise book that would help a Veteran with their VA Claim.

If a claim may relate to a high ranking official, the NHHC also maintains an extensive personal papers collection that could help unearth a detail important to a case.

How to Request Records from the Archives

There are a few ways to collect data from the archives to support a VA Disability Appeal, and accessibility to the records depends on how old the claim is, and how classified the material may be.

The National Archives offers some self-service tools for service records and other essential items at their Veterans’ Service Records page.  There, a Veteran can search for their own records, replace medals and awards, and get additional information to support Veterans.

A Veteran can reach out directly to each of the Archives branch to help narrow down a search, but may need to file a FOIA request to actually obtain the material.  Reaching out first is generally a good idea, though, because the archivists can help identify the specific records or time periods to ensure that your FOIA request is as narrow as possible.  This is helpful to both parties as a year’s worth of decklogs can easily pass 500 pages of material for the agency to produce and the Veteran to read through.

If a claim is already at the Regional Office, Board of Veterans Appeals, or CAVC, the records can be sent directly to support the VA Disability Appeal without a FOIA, since the Federal Government does not need to FOIA itself.  However, this disappears at the local and state levels, where the Federal Government can withhold information until receiving a valid FOIA request.

Classification can also be a hinderance to obtaining records.  The Archives can supply Unclass and Declass material on demand, but not Classified, Secret, or above.  These does not need to be the end of a journey though, as the Veteran can request declassification of a document in support of their Disability Compensation Appeal.  There is a large amount of classified material that remains classified simply because the military does not have the money or manpower to stay caught up with the backlog.  It can be helpful to put in a request to get your document to jump the line.  Generally any document over 10-25 years old can be expedited for declassification, and more recent documents can also be declassified if the compelling nature of the VA Appeal outweighs the original reason for classification.

If you are facing a VA denial or your injuries or disabilities from service, you can fight with every resource you have, including using the military’s own resources to support your claims.  Remember that every piece of supporting information could be the item that tips the scales in favor of an appropriate Rating Decision.

Berry Law Firm has been helping Veterans for over 50 years and can also provide support in appealing VA Rating Decisions.  Please contact us if you would like to know more about what we can do to help.