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American Homefront

VA Issues Long-Awaited Veteran ID Cards But With An Ad On The Back

Bobbie O'Brien
WUSF Public Media
The back of the VA-issued veterans I.D. card includes a retailer's logo in exchange for giving the cards to vets for free.

The VA is now mailing identification cards to veterans who want tangible proof that they served in the military. But after waiting almost three years for the new government-issued I.D., some veterans are not happy that the card contains an advertisement.

President Obama signed the law creating the card in July 2015, but it included no funding, so it languished for more than two years. Eventually, the VA struck a partnership deal with Office Depot, in which the retail chain is paying to print and mail the cards.

The company logo appears on the back, along with the taglines, "Saluting you today and everyday. Thanks for taking care of business."

That disappoints Air Force veteran Carl Hunsinger, chairman of the Manatee County Veterans Council in Florida. For years, he had lobbied Congress to create the card, because many of the 40,000 vets the council represents have little or no proof of their service.

"A majority of the ones I know are looking for a sign of professionalism. 'Hey, I'm a veteran this is my I.D. card,'" Hunsinger said.

But while he's pleased veterans finally began receiving their cards in May, Hunsinger is unhappy about the  logo.

"So how do you show a veteran I.D. card - I'm a veteran, I'm proud of it - and you turn it over and you've got some business logo on the back of it?" Hunsinger said.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), who sponsored the 2015 law, said the Office Depot partnership will save money for veterans. The law allowed the VA to charge veterans a fee for the card, but instead, the retailer will cover the cost until 2020.

"It's not a big logo or anything," Buchanan said. "They're really picking up a lot of the cost. So it's no cost to the taxpayer, no cost to the veteran. So I think at the end of the day it's a good tradeoff."

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
Air Force veteran Carl Hunsinger serves as chairman of the Manatee County Veterans Council.

The new identification card, while issued by the federal government, cannot be used for entry onto military bases or as official I.D. at airport security checkpoints. It does not replace the veteran's VA health card, nor does it qualify vets for any additional government services.

But one reason that many veterans want the card is to qualify for veterans discounts at stores and restaurants. Some merchants require written proof of military service, forcing veterans to carry copies of their discharge papers or other government documents. But those forms also often contain sensitive information, such as social security numbers.

Veterans advocates hope merchants will now accept the new card, which carries no personal information.

While military retirees and veterans who use the VA health care system already have I.D.s, many former service members do not fit into either category.  

"The most enthusiastic are the older vets, the Korean War vets, the Vietnam vets, who for so long have had basically nothing to show for their service," said Daniel Benedict, the superintendent of the Logan County Veterans Assistance Commission in Lincoln, Ill.

Benedict was so pleased when he finally got his I.D. in May that he promptly posted a picture of it on Facebook and wanted to encourage other veterans to apply.

He complimented the VA for finding a way to pay for the cards without charging veterans.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
The front of the new, VA-issued veterans I.D. carries no sensitive information unlike formal discharge papers, form DD-214.

"Everybody is looking for resources," Benedict said. "The fact the VA partnered with Office Depot doesn't lessen the value in any way in my mind."

In a written statement, a VA spokesman referred to the Office Depot partnership as the kind of "outside the box thinking" that the Trump Administration has brought to the federal government. He referred questions about the costs of the I.D. card program to Office Depot, but the company declined to comment.

The VA began accepting online applications through its website late last year, but technical problems led the agency to halt applications shortly afterward. The VA said the online system now is working properly, and said more than 34,000 cards had been mailed as of early June.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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