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Legislators push to keep military records secret

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Legislators push to keep military records secret

  • Proposals in three states may make it more difficult to access veterans’ discharge records held by state and local governments.

March 11, 2003 — Military service records, which traditionally have been provided by state or county officials, may soon be closed to the public if proposed bills in Maryland, New Mexico and Missouri are approved.

In Missouri a bill introduced in early January and sponsored by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-St. Elizabeth) would keep service records kept by county recorders from the public for 50 years after they are filed.

The Department of Defense advises veterans to file their military records with their county clerk for safekeeping. Those records contain information such as their service record and any award they won while in uniform. They also include Social Security numbers. These forms are used by veterans to apply for federal benefits and loans. Filing this information is not mandatory, but once filed, it is subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law.

Similar bills introduced during current legislative sessions in Maryland and New Mexico would exempt military “discharge papers” from disclosure under state freedom of information laws.

Proponents of these bills say they will protect veterans from identity theft.

“We do not want anyone taking advantage of these veterans who have served their country,” said Blaine Luetkemeyer, the Missouri lawmaker who is sponsoring this bill.

“This bill is meant to stop people from nosing through records; we’re going to stop them from doing that,” added Luetkemeyer, who admits that there has been “no documented case in Missouri of the kind of fraud envisioned by this bill.”

Freedom of information advocates argue that because the information is filed by veterans voluntarily, once it is filed, it should be a public. While advocates are worried about the implications of this bill, they concede that much of the information proposed to be exempt under the state law will still be available through the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, a federal depository for veterans’ military and medical records. However, many of those records were destroyed by fire in 1973.

“You can get most of this stuff publicly somewhere else. It just was not worth the blood and toil to keep these records open,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the Missouri School of Journalism.

“These records are available elsewhere,” echoed Jim Keat, the Maryland State Sunshine Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists and a retired Baltimore Sun reporter and assistant managing editor. But the proponents of these bills “are creating false hysteria among veterans” because veterans are not forced to file this information with the government, Keat said.

(Missouri HB72, New Mexico HB112, Maryland HB733) GS

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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