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LOST MILITARY RECORDS BEDEVIL BENEFITS CLAIMS

The federal government has 80 million sets of personnel records filed away in a five-acre facility in St. Louis, and in an average week gets up to 7,000 requests for copies of files, some of them containing hundreds of pages.

Considering the immensity of the operation, it's small wonder that it can take time to get copies and that sometimes records cannot be found.

But that's of little comfort to military veterans who feel they are entitled to benefits and are told, in effect: Sorry, we have no record of your being injured. Prove you were.

An Oct. 9 story in The Buffalo News concerning a disabled Army veteran engaged in a 35-year battle to receive compensation after his records were lost by the military included statements from officials that his situation was unusual.

But half a dozen veterans have contacted The News, saying that their records also had been lost and that they face a similar struggle with the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Army lost Rudolph Cherkauer's birth certificate within hours of his enlisting.

"We'll find it and mail it back," he said he was told.

That was in 1942. The Kenmore resident is still waiting.

He has had some medical problems that he attributes to his service during World War II, but his complete records could not be located.

Cherkauer said he has never made an issue of it.

"I accept this as a price I had to pay to help fight a war," he said.

Sherman Goodman of Medina was in Army basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., in 1975. One day his training company was made to stand at attention for a long time in a gymnasium.

Several men fainted, including Goodman, who said he went face-first into the floor and regained consciousness minus five front teeth.

The Army eventually provided him with false teeth, which worked fine until a few years ago, when they no longer fit properly; he began experiencing pain, and his gums became infected.

The problem has gotten worse, and efforts to obtain a new bridge have met with the same "lost records syndrome."

Goodman recently was laid off from his job and has been told a new bridge from a civilian dentist would cost thousands of dollars.

"I'm not looking (to collect) disability. I just want treatment," he said.

"What bothers me most is their attitude (at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center). Very few people had any sympathy," he said.

On July 12, 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed between 16 million and 18 million sets of records, including 80 percent of the Army records for people discharged between 1912 and 1960. There were no duplicates or microfilm copies. Neither is there a complete list of the records destroyed.

The records of Gordon Gracie of Lancaster were among those that went up in flames. He has been struggling for years with a foot problem he relates to an off-duty shooting accident while serving at a remote petroleum depot in Alaska in 1957.

Henry Threatt of Buffalo tore up his knee while serving at the Army's Fort Ord, in California, in 1962. When he started having problems years later, his efforts to seek disability payments were hampered because his records had been lost in another fire, he said.

Like others, he has been told that it would help his case if he could find witnesses to verify his injury. (Publications of veterans' organizations typically have a section devoted to those seeking help for claim substantiation.)

"I didn't even remember their names. How am I supposed to find them?" he asked.

Steve Doss, spokesman for the National Personnel Records Center, said that he wasn't trying to shift blame and that his agency does the best it can with the resources it is given.

But sometimes veterans compound the problem by not keeping very good track of their own affairs, he said.

"There is no excuse for anyone to lose their records. Not us, not the veteran," he said.

The center does have a reconstruction unit that tries to put together at least a partial service record using alternate sources, such as duty rosters, he said.

Lou Palma, Erie County director of veterans affairs, said he hears frequently from veterans in search of records.

Members of Congress can be helpful, and "sometimes the records miraculously appear" if the veteran is persistent, he said.

Dealing with the military and VA bureaucracies can be frustrating, and obtaining records can take months under the best of circumstances.

But Palma said he thinks the situation is getting better.

"They are more likely now to give the veteran the benefit of the doubt," he said.

e-mail: ternst@buffnews.com

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