“They told me the only thing that they had was my physical before going in, and an ear exam going out. Well, how do you lose everything in between?” he asked.
Among the missing records is the documented proof he suffered a major back injury during a parachute assault.
“Amazingly enough, when I broke my back, I was flown off the drop zone to an emergency hospital in the area, in the country of Jordan. [Then I was] flown to Germany - all of this by military aircraft - flown to Malcrom Grow hospital in Washington DC, then to Norfolk Hospital in Virginia, and then back to a hospital in Fort Bragg. All [the trips] on Air Force aircraft, and nobody has anything with my name on it that I was ever there,” said Propst.
Propst recovered from that injury, but says he was soon back on desert duty, and aggravated it.
“Of course, on all these missions you’re on helicopters and 5-ton trucks that you’re jumping 4, 5, 6 feet out of with a 100lb pack on. [You’re] hauling this weight around every day that you wouldn’t do in a normal year,” he said. “You’re doing more in two months over in Iraq than you’re doing training-wise in a year in the U.S. It just wears you down quick.”
Propst was able to finish his tour of duty, but he recalls what he says he was ordered to do before he could come home.
“We were told [to] mail everything home. Everything that’s not mailed by the end of this week, you either carry on your back or we’re gonna burn it,” Propst said. “They were throwing our medical records and every non-essential piece of equipment in the burn pits because there was no room to fly it home.”
Propst says the burn pits didn’t raise any red flags at the time.
“You’re worried about getting shot the next day. You’re not worried about what they’re doing with that box and what’s in it,” he explained.
And Propst didn’t worry too much about his back pain back then either. He was young and strong. He did his final year of duty at Fort Bragg and then joined a police force. But years later, Propst says it became just too much to bear.
“As I got older, my back and hips and stuff like that started to bother me more from these injuries. So, I started seeking VA medical care about three years ago, and just immediately hit a brick wall right away,” he said.
The Veterans Administration had no record of Propst’s back, knee, or ankle injuries while in the military “I’ve been dealing with denials,” he said. “I know I’m not alone.”
He’s not. Veteran Chris Layton says he feels his pain.
“I don’t have any medical records or records to show anything,” Layton said.
The Roxboro resident also served in Desert Storm and has the medals to prove it. Layton’s also a former Fort Bragg paratrooper who also hurt his back on a jump.
“I landed backward one night and my back just crunched,” he recalled.
Layton says the Army gave him great treatment at the time. But now, years later, while the VA will treat him, he’s being denied service connection disability because they don’t have his records.
“You’re expected to do a job in the military and then you expect if something happens that you’ll be looked after,” he offered.
Both he and Propst say they feel betrayed.
“You volunteered while your friends were going off to college to go fight for your country. [You] actually got the call and suffered the hardships, and then get [their] back turned on you,” said Propst.
But earlier this year, there was a glimmer of hope. Propst saw a story similar to his done by a Florida TV station featuring what appears to be a letter from the Department of the Army with an admission.
“Units were told to destroy their records since there was no space to ship the paper back to the states,” reads the letter, which it says was in “direct contradiction to the existing army regulations.”
ABC11 has not been able to confirm the authenticity of the document which also says “nearly all records below the brigade level no longer existed,” but NC Senator Kay Hagan told us: “It is very disturbing that veterans may have been denied services because units were given bad guidance to destroy their copies of wartime records. I am working with the VA to get to the bottom of this, and help our veterans - who put their lives on the line for our freedom - get the benefits they deserve.”
Layton and Propst told us they believe the Army letter is real.
“I find it interesting that in that letter they say units of brigade level or lower. Why weren’t the general’s records burned? Or the colonel’s? Or the staff at the division headquarters? Why was it just us low people on the totem pole. If there’s no room, there’s no room,” said Propst.
Both soldiers continue to appeal their denials. Propst even got the medic who treated him then - now a doctor - to confirm he was treated during the war for chronic pain due to parachute injury.
“You produce these records, and they still just turn their back on you,” said Propst.
Propst said he thinks he knows why.
“It would cost them billions to pay for all these claims. It’s about saving money,” he offered.
But both vets say, just like their last battle, they won’t back down from this one.
“You got to keep trying, and if you don’t, then you lose,” said Layton. “I just want to make sure that these people out there that are fighting the system don’t give up and keep trying, because it’s an uphill fight.”
Recently, both men did get a percentage of their service disability benefits approved. But, they’re still being denied compensation for their back, leg, and other injuries. Both say it’s because of the missing records. Both are appealing their latest denials.
Again, it’s important to note that they are getting treatment from the VA for their injuries. This comes down to their disability benefits for service-connected injuries.
ABC11 has heard from other veterans who say they’re dealing with roadblocks when it comes to getting treatment or services. There are organizations out there to help. Find information at these websites:
North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs: http://www.doa.state.nc.us/vets/
Disabled American Veterans: http://www.dav.org/
Veterans Leadership Council of North Carolina-Cares: http://vlcnc-cares.org/