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The Night 17 Million Precious Military Records Went Up in Smoke


Owens, who has spent greater than 20 years working on the data heart, is a burly man in his early fifties, carrying intentionally distressed denims with zippers throughout the thighs. Principally bald with a brief graying beard, he’s a skilled Baptist minister, and his hearty giggle booms throughout the lab. Even in an workplace the place everyone seems to be smitten by their work, Owens’ evangelizing stands out. When he tells me about the way it feels to assist somebody discover their data, he scrunches up his eyes. “It provides me hope,” he says. “I simply know that what we’re doing now’s going to higher the potential of serving to any person. Any person goes to take a look at a paper 500 years from now with my title on it and say, Keith Owens, whoever this was, did one thing superb to assist any person again then.”

Till strolling into Owens’ cubicle, I hadn’t deliberate on citing my quest for my grandfather’s data. However below the spell of his pastor’s have an effect on, I babble out the backstory, my voice cracking barely as I clarify that I’d submitted all the things I had and it nonetheless wasn’t sufficient. I don’t even know whether or not Grandfather ever acquired veterans’ advantages. Owens lights up. Let’s examine the index playing cards and discover out, he says. Earlier than I do know it, we’re at his pc opening a folder labeled “Egan–Eidson.”

We click on into a couple of completely different PDFs earlier than discovering the playing cards that embody the Eh- names. Within the fourth one, we discover the final title Ehman. We scroll previous an Arnold, two Bruces, two Adams, two Alberts, two Andrews. Immediately, we’re on to Ehmen, with a second “e” the place the “a” needs to be. We scroll down additional, till the alphabetization loops again to the beginning.

Extra Ehmans seem: Charles, Clement, David, Dennis, Earl, Elizabeth. “Come on,” Owens implores, as if keen his favourite sprinter to cross the end line first. However now we’re again to Ehmen.

He sighs, retains scrolling, retains narrating. The tone of his voice has turned from excited to apprehensive. I can see the progress bar is sort of to the underside of the file, and my abdomen drops. We’re not going to seek out him.

Then, simply earlier than we attain the tip, I catch a glimpse of “Abraham,” Grandfather’s center title. “Th- th- th-,” I stammer incomprehensibly, and loudly, fumbling to level him to the fitting card. Owens reads the title Fred aloud, confirming what I’ve already realized. “Holy shit,” I whisper quietly. “Oh my god.” It’s not like seeing a ghost, precisely, observing this tiny card with a handful of fundamental details about an individual I am keen on and can by no means see once more. It’s extra like realizing the particular person I believed was a ghost is actually fairly seen.

However that is simply the prelude to my actual quest. Now, lastly, we will discover out whether or not Grandfather’s personnel file survived the hearth. Armed with a service quantity, we head downstairs to the analysis room to search for Fred Abraham Ehman. I begin to persuade myself that I’m one of many fortunate ones, that we’ll uncover a usable B file with all that element I’ve been craving, regardless of the 4-to-1 odds that it’s gone.


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