On Monday, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, joined by Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California, introduced the bipartisan Veterans’ Record Reconstruction Act, a bill that would make it easier for veterans to prove their eligibility for certain benefits or decorations.

Sunday marked the 42nd anniversary of a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, Mo., which destroyed 16 million to 18 million official military personnel files. Because none of the destroyed records had duplicate copies, nor had they been copied to microfilm, the true extent of what was lost is still unclear.

This has led to incomplete records for many of our nation’s World War II, Korean War and Vietnam-era veterans. These records, however, are often the only acceptable documentation for military benefits and awards determinations, leaving millions of veterans in a potential state of limbo.

The Veterans’ Record Reconstruction Act would require that the Department of Defense, in consultation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, develop guidelines for the consideration and use of unofficial sources of information in determining benefits and decoration eligibility when a veteran’s service records are incomplete due to damage caused to the records while in the possession of the Department of Defense. This shortcoming in the current system was identified through case work services provided by Capps’ office to Central Coast residents.

Due to the 1973 fire, unofficial sources of information, including post-marked letters, photographs and eyewitness accounts have been used on a case-by-case basis to help reconstruct some veterans’ files, but currently there is no set pathway to guide a veteran through this process. The Veterans’ Record Reconstruction Act would direct DOD and the VA to develop clear criteria for the consideration and use of unofficial sources, making it easier to help more veterans get the benefits they deserve.

“After more than 40 years since this tragic fire, it is unacceptable that we continue to make it difficult for veterans to receive the benefits and recognition they deserve,” Capps said. “The case-by-case system currently in place to reconstruct incomplete military records — records that were lost while in the possession of the government — is a time-consuming, inefficient and costly process for our aging veterans. We owe it to them to ensure that they are able to receive the benefits and recognition that they have earned. The Veterans’ Record Reconstruction Act will establish a clear pathway to reconstructing these records and finally provide relief to these heroes.”

“I’m pleased to cosponsor this effort to provide safeguards ensuring that veterans are able to receive the benefits they’ve earned,” Rep. LaMalfa said. “If federal records are lost, improperly stored, damaged by fires or other accidents, veterans deserve a clear path to establishing eligibility, and this measure creates that path. Veterans should never be denied benefits because the federal government failed to properly maintain records.”

“Many of the veterans on the Central Coast have manifested symptoms associated with exposure to Agent Orange and have attempted to file claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Frank Campo, the local chapter commander of the Disabled American Veterans. “Often times when they contact the National Archives to retrieve a certified copy of their discharge they have received responses indicating that no record can be found and that this may be due to the fire that occurred in 1973. While these veterans often have photographs, letters with military postal marks, and other documents to support a claim they are frequently still denied. I believe the passage of this important legislation will help veterans obtain the benefits they deserve, which is why I encourage all members of Congress to support this important bipartisan bill.”

Capps — whose district is home to more than 50,000 veterans — has long been a strong supporter of our nation’s veterans, voting for the post-9/11 GI Bill, as well as the largest increase in funding in the history of the Veterans Administration. She is also the author of bipartisan legislation to help Iraq and Afghanistan vets use their medical training to more easily become civilian Emergency Medical Technicians.

Joining Capps in co-sponsoring the Veterans’ Record Reconstruction Act were Reps. Julia Brownley, Yvette Clarke, Jim Costa, Brian Higgins, Mike Honda, Steve Israel, LaMalfa, Chellie Pingree, Charlie Rangel, Jose Serrano, Chris Stewart, Paul Tonko, Niki Tsongas, Chris Van Hollen, Nydia Velasquez and Ted Yoho.

— C.J. Young is the press secretary for Rep. Lois Capps.