Current law does not recognize many National Guard members as veterans

lynne.shackleford@shj.comOctober 2, 2012 

Some National Guard service members are not eligible for the “veteran” designation on their driver’s licenses — an oversight that several state lawmakers said they plan to revisit in January.

Robert “Charles” Jeter, 49, discovered the “glitch” recently when he went to the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles to have the “veteran” designation added to his driver’s license so that he can receive discounts at various retailers. Jeter, who served in the Army and the National Guard, took his NGB Form 22 — his National Guard record of service — to the DMV office and was told he needed a DD Form 214, which is issued by the federal government after active duty.

Jeter, who lives in Boiling Springs, then retrieved the needed form and had the designation placed on his commercial driver’s license, but he worried that those who had served in the National Guard stateside wouldn’t get the same honor.

“They’re turning people away at the DMV saying we’re not veterans,” Jeter said. “I’m trying to be a mouth for everybody who wouldn’t get their honor.”

S.C. DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks said the way the new law, which went into effect last month, is written only veterans who served in active duty or National Guardsmen who served in combat zones and were later issued Defense Department Form 214 papers are eligible for the “veteran” designation on their licenses.

The law concerning “veteran” car plates is worded differently and allows “veteran” plates to be issued to anyone who served in the U.S. armed forces active or Reserve and was honorably discharged. That law requires veterans to show “official military documentation,” but that law doesn’t specify a document, Parks said.

Parks said the DMV is aware of the issue surrounding the “veteran” designation on driver’s licenses, but DMV staffers must comply with the law.

“We fully understand that some guardsmen who served a long time ago may not have a DD 214,” she said. “We’re bound by the law and the way it is written, and we only accept the DD 214.”

State Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg, said excluding National Guardsmen was an oversight and one that will be discussed at the Nov. 12 Spartanburg Legislative Delegation meeting. Reese, who has opposition in this election, said he will introduce legislation in January to correct the oversight, if he’s re-elected.

“In my opinion, anyone wearing the uniform who offers to put themselves in harm’s way is a veteran and a soldier,” Reese said. “We need to honor all of the people who served. It needs to be tweaked to include all branches of service.”

Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, said he also favors changing the law to include all National Guardsmen.

“We probably need to expand the requirements to include the Form 22 and any other discharge form,” Forrester said.

But at least one state official doesn’t see a problem with the current law.

Howard Metcalf, the director of the S.C. State Office of Veterans’ Affairs, said the state law is similar to the one passed in other states, and he doesn’t have an issue with the one passed here.

“As far as I’m concerned, the law is clear,” Metcalf said. “It’s based on the benefits available to veterans by the federal government. In order for the National Guard to be considered veterans, that must be changed by Congress.”

Metcalf said National Guardsmen are only considered veterans by the federal definition if they are called into active duty or combat.

“If you’re asking me if the National Guard are veterans, the answer is no, not according to the federal government, unless they’ve been in active duty or served in combat,” Metcalf said.

Rob Godfrey, spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, said in a statement that “the governor has a great deal of admiration and respect for the men and women who put on a uniform every day. The definition of a ‘veteran’ used in this legislation is what is recognized by the federal government — and S.C. DMV has to follow the law.”

It isn’t clear whether Haley would support expanding the law to include all military service members.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who served in the Army Reserves and Army National Guard, said in a written statement that he believes all members of the military deserve equal recognition.

“Congressman Wilson believes the brave men and women in uniform who have dedicated their lives to serve our country, whether it be Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve members, deserve equal recognition,” the statement reads. “ The congressman would support changing the law to apply to all of our armed forces; however, he does believe the issue needs to be addressed at the state level.”

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who represents most of Spartanburg County, declined to comment on the designation, saying the matter is a state issue.

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