News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, Nov. 22, 2013
AIKEN, SC (WRDW) -- "If I had to do it all over again like I know now with the system we have to go through I don't think I would go," says Joseph Gartrell. 56 years have passed since Gartrell was honorably discharged from the Army. But his memory of the time he spent in the cold during the Korean War is still painfully fresh.
"I had developed frost bitten feet," says Gartrell. One of several medical problems he developed while in Korea. They removed six inches of my stomach," says Gartrell after an infection.
Gartrell says after retiring from the Army he worked for some years but says neuropathy in his feet and other injuries sustained in Korea made it impossible. He says after stomach surgery in 1973 he filed for service connected disability.
"I kept applying, kept applying, kept applying," says Gartrell. He says in 2010 he applied once again. "I filed for a set of records and they kept putting it off, putting it off, finally last two years they sent a paper saying my records were destroyed in a fire," says Gartrell.
A massive fire on July 12, 1973, destroyed records of veterans who served from 1912 to 1963. "I'm not the only veteran going through this same trouble," says Gartrell.
The fire burned for 3 days consuming 18 million records. That included 75% of Air Force records of those who served between 1947 and 1964 and 80% of Army records, the branch of service Gartrell served with.
"They did not tell me my records burned up until last year. All the time I had been putting in and writing and all," says Gartrell.
Complicating matters, he says a house fire decades ago destroyed all but his DD-214 honorable discharge form. He says he was informed by the VA to find someone who may have served with him that can confirm he was in the military. "That's been 50-years ago. How am I gonna locate somebody," says Gartrell.
He says the burden of proof is now on him to show he actually served in the military. "That's not my fault they burned up my records. That's their fault. and they know I was in the service," says Gartrell.
The Preservation Lab at the National Archives in Saint Louis for years has tried to piece together 6 million documents that were not totally destroyed by the fire. For Gartrell it is little consultation. "If my life is as long as my mothers life, I'll be here a while," says Gartrell.
A bit of irony here. Unlike other military records facilities that had sprinkler systems at the time, the Saint Louis center was built without them. The military assumed significant damage from flooding would be more likely to occur than damage from a fire.
There are a few options for veterans who are trying to prove they served during the years in question.
They can try the Selective Service System, the Army and Air Force Casualty Branches, Judge Advocate General Offices, the American Battle Monuments Commission, State Adjutants General, state archives or state and county veterans' service offices.