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National veterans record center in St. Louis County is clearing massive backlog

A big government building with a white stone facade and lots of windows.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The National Archives Personnel Records Center last November in unincorporated north St. Louis County

Veterans awaiting records for needed services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or nonprofit organizations may see their cases soon pick up pace, because the National Personnel Records Center has largely cleared its backlog of 600,000 requests.

As of Friday, the center, based in St. Louis County, has 97,000 to 98,000 requests in its queue. The staff can complete 35,000 to 40,000 per week, said Director Scott Levins.

A division of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the records center accumulated the massive backlog by March 2022 because doing work remotely slowed efforts during the pandemic.

Clearing the backlog is a big win for the center and for veterans, Levins said.

“It's critically important to America's veterans,” Levins said. “They’ve given to this country, and the least we can do is make sure that when they need something small, accessing information, that we can provide it to them and do it properly.”

The center provides what Levins and veterans advocates describe as a paramount service for former military members.

When seeking medical care at the VA, getting medals for a deceased family member or finding shelter for someone experiencing homelessness, veterans and their families may need to provide records to prove they are disabled or eligible for certain services. Many may not have those records handy and turn to the center.

With the backlog, veterans were stuck waiting much longer than usual. Sometimes it's up to 12 to 18 months more, said Rebecca Tallman, executive director of the Veterans Community Project St. Louis, a nonprofit that builds tiny homes for homeless veterans.

For Tallman, an Air Force veteran herself, clearing the backlog is welcome news.

“That’s amazing,” she said. “That means a veteran doesn’t have to wait as long to receive the services that they truly need or the income that they need because they’re unable to work due to those disabilities.”

The records center performed well through the early part of the pandemic, Levins said. However, for the industry largely centered around analog records, the remote work and 4,000 to 5,000 requests per day added up over time.

When Levins started at the center in the early 2000s, the agency had a backlog totaling 250,000 cases because it had shrunk staffing and changed operations. That took years to clear, he said.

Levins, who took the top job in 2011, said he checked with his predecessors about the pandemic backlog and they confirmed it was the worst in the center’s history.

“I was worried this would be something I would be working on for the rest of my career and I would have to leave this place in worse shape than it was when I arrived,” he said.

It got bad enough that members of Congress came to the center to see for themselves, Levins said.

Illinois U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, sent a letter to the National Archives in May 2021 saying that “veterans need answers” regarding the delays. In response to last week’s news, Bost, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, praised the announcement.

“Our veterans can get back to receiving their records in a timely manner,” he said.

The solutions

The analog records are dated from the Spanish-American war in the 1890s to the Gulf War in the 1990s. Since 2000, the records have been digitized, Levins said.

The records center prioritized requests regarding veterans receiving federal benefits during the peak of the backlog. Others were stuck waiting longer.

A variety of solutions were needed, Levins said. Better use of technology allowed staff to answer requests from home in a secure manner. The center worked with the VA to digitize more records in the building.

“If there's ever another crisis of this magnitude, we'll be much better positioned to respond,” he said.

Hiring more employees and returning to in-person work in March 2022 also helped, as did lots of overtime and weekend work by the staff, Levins said.

“I have to give kudos to the workforce here because that's really what brought it down was their commitment, and then the hours that they put in,” he said.

“We’re not out of work,” Levins said with a laugh.

Tallman said she hasn’t noticed the process picking up pace quite yet. However, she expects she and other veterans will notice soon.

“Because it's been going on for a couple of years, people have come to expect it and deal with it,” Tallman said. “It's unfortunate, but now I'm excited to see for our local area veterans what that means to not have that same backlog.”

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.