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Howard Altman: Missing records confound veterans on base exchange website

Anyone honorably discharged from the military can now shop online through the militarty base excchange, which fills some of its orders from the exchange building at MacDill Air Force Base. But some veterans finding it hard to sign up. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times]
Anyone honorably discharged from the military can now shop online through the militarty base excchange, which fills some of its orders from the exchange building at MacDill Air Force Base. But some veterans finding it hard to sign up. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Nov. 16, 2017

In the more than three decades that I have been toiling at various paragraph factories, few stories have elicited as much response as the one I wrote about the new program to allow all honorably discharged veterans to shop at military base exchanges like the one at MacDill Air Force Base.

I received more than five dozen phone calls, and plenty of emails, from veterans and their families having a hard time signing up for the program.

Gil Herman, 80, of New Port Richey, was one of them.

An Army veteran who served between 1955 and 1957, Herman logged onto shopmyexchange.com and followed the prompts.

But nothing happened.

Herman's problem, it turns out, dates back to July 12, 1973, when a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed some 18 million official military personnel files.

So I asked for an explanation from Julie Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service which runs more than 2,700 locations like the MacDill exchange in all 50 states, five U.S. territories and 36 nations.

The answer points up a huge problem in databases containing information about veterans.

Mitchell told me that when the new online shopping program was first being developed four years ago, officials assumed there was a single federal database containing records for all living veterans.

But as Felix Unger once warned about what happens when you assume, the assumption didn't pan out.

"With our continued learning, we now know that is not the case," Mitchell said. Where records are not found, because of the fire or some other consideration, or where they are incomplete, "our initial alternative was to send veterans to multiple agencies to build their identity," Mitchell said.

While there is "no reliable estimate for lost records," Mitchell said "a simple comparison between just two of the databases has a 5 million veteran discrepancy."

But bouncing veterans who served the nation honorably from database to database "was not an acceptable customer experience," she said.

The exchange service worked with a number of federal agencies — Defense Manpower Data Center, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Bureau of Veteran Affairs — to input enough data to authenticate qualified veterans.

The exchange accepts a veteran's discharge information, usually their form DD-214, to validate the discharge.

"Once that is accomplished, the veteran is immediately notified by email that they may use their online shopping benefit," Mitchell said. "During beta testing, we honed this process."

Mitchell said the exchange is "proud of our efforts to serve our veterans and, at this point, we probably have one of the most complete databases of veterans in existence."

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For veterans like Gil Herman and the dozens of others who have reached out to me, I can only hope so.

But if you are an honorably discharged veteran and still having problems, please call (214) 312-3106 for assistance with verification.

It's not that I don't love hearing from you.

But the people who answer that phone can offer the assistance I can't.

•••

The Pentagon last week announced the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lee M. Smith, 35, of Arlington, Texas, died Nov. ?11 at Camp Taji, Iraq, due to injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident. He was assigned to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky. The incident is under investigation.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 45 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the followup, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan; 40 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a name, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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