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Veteran designation on Pennsylvania driver's licenses loosely audited

| Saturday, March 28, 2015, 8:34 p.m.
Bellevue resident Ben Keen, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, displays his license which features an American flag veteran designation.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Bellevue resident Ben Keen, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, displays his license which features an American flag veteran designation.
A veteran designation began appearing on Pennsylvania's driver's licenses in March 2014, as seen here in a sample. Roughly 140,000 designations have been issued.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation
A veteran designation began appearing on Pennsylvania's driver's licenses in March 2014, as seen here in a sample. Roughly 140,000 designations have been issued.

The telephone operator told Ben Keen he would not need his military discharge papers to obtain the new veteran's designation on his driver's license.

To be cautious, Keen brought them Downtown to the driver's services center. The proof was still deemed unnecessary.

“I was really surprised,” Keen said. “They said, ‘No, you just gotta come here and check the box.' I said, ‘Well, I'm bringing my DD214 anyway, because I feel better having it.' ”

Keen is one of about 140,000 Pennsylvania drivers to receive the veteran's designation and American flag icon on his license since the program started in March 2014.

Most of these requests go unverified. The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs audits just 10 to 20 percent. The auditing process is conducted by a single person responsible for thousands of requests; a lack of resources has allowed hundreds of unverified applications to pass.

Since the program began, the audits have turned up 414 ineligible customers. Most reapplied successfully, but officials canceled the designation for 181.

Legislation awaiting a vote in the state House of Representatives would make it a crime to lie about veteran status on the application. Keen, who is executive director of the Steel City Vets nonprofit support organization, agrees with the proposal.

“It's one thing to say, ‘Oh don't do that,' and give you a slap on the wrist,” Keen said. “Make it some sort of thing where if you do this it is going to hurt — where, whether in your wallet or your time, it is going to hurt.”

The idea behind the designation was to give veterans an easier way to officially prove their service.

Chip Gilliland, chief of the reintegration and outreach division of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, described it as a tool for law enforcement who might deal with someone with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Officers may have a better understanding or viewpoint of how to react to some of these people, other than throwing them in the car,” he said. “A lot of people think it's about getting 10 percent off at Lowe's, but that's not necessarily the case.”

The designation is free as part of a license renewal; it requires the fee for a duplicate license. On a daily basis, PennDOT sends its forms to the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, as many as 400 to 1,300.

Clerk Crystal Petery is the program's one-person audit department. She randomly selects about 10 percent of the requests each day to double-check against state records.

But those records, dating to 1995, aren't all-encompassing. Petery will contact those who aren't found in the state system and send a form letter requesting a copy of their DD214, official military discharge papers. In most cases, the vets send a copy, Petery said. If a copy isn't available, she'll try to help track it down on through the National Archives.

“Sometimes they're frustrated,” she said. “But once we explain it, it's usually OK.”

If the applicant doesn't respond within 45 days, or documentation can't be secured, PennDOT sends the cancellation letter, telling the applicant to obtain a new license.

The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs can't tell whether the 181 unverified applications were accidental or fraudulent. Nor does it plan to check the 80 to 90 percent that go unverified.

“It's strictly resources,” Gilliland said.

Gilliland is talking with the federal government about obtaining read-only access to its national veterans database: “If I could get access into their database with read-only, I could pretty much verify everybody because it would go a lot quicker.”

Until that happens, he defends the department's work.

“For the amount of resources to complete this project, I think it's gone pretty well,” Gilliland said. “Crystal does a great job getting through it on a daily basis as a one-woman show.”

With little to suggest increased funding is on the way to audit the applications, lawmakers are considering new penalties. Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, wants to make lying about service on the form a summary offense subject to a $300 fine or possible imprisonment for 30 to 90 days.

Self-certification is allowed to make it easier for elderly veterans, Baker said, who might not have access to their discharge papers. Adding a penalty could deter applicants from fabricating military service, she said, noting another proposal to make falsely wearing military decorations a crime.

“It's a deterrent for people who take away the valor of those who have served,” she said.

Her legislation unanimously passed the Senate in early March and headed to the House, where it awaits action in the Transportation Committee.

Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong County, was prime sponsor of the bill that established the designation. He's on board with Baker's proposal.

“We don't want to disrespect anyone who legitimately is a veteran,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or

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