A lot more Italian license plates may be visible on and around American military bases in northern Italy.

Army and Air Force officials hope to get their personnel to switch from the distinctive Allied Forces International plates to ones that the locals use. And an agreement being worked to standardize the process across Italy should make it easier and cheaper for Americans to get the plates.

“We think it’s a valuable force protection measure that people can take to blend in better with our local hosts,” said Lt. Col. Mike Morris, deputy commander of the 31st Mission Support Squadron at Aviano Air Base.

The 31st Fighter Wing has been trying to get airmen to make the switch.

“I think ‘encourage’ would be a legitimate word to use,” Morris said. But it hasn’t gone as far as the Army plans to go.

During a recent visit to Vicenza, Gen. B.B. Bell, the U.S. Army Europe commander, said he wanted all soldiers in the 22nd Area Support Group to drive with Italian plates on their personal vehicles.

If the Southern European Task Force [Airborne] requires that, it would mean the Army would have to pay for the plates. And that, according to a base spokeswoman, is indeed the case.

“The command is looking for ways to present these cover plates to soldiers,” said Margret Menzies, a public affairs officer in Vicenza. She said several options were under discussion and that a timetable couldn’t be set.

Local plates have been an option for Americans stationed in Italy for years. But the process to get them varies greatly depending on the local province. Until recently, some of those applying at Aviano had to wait for more than six months to receive their local plates. And that’s after paying about 70 euro for them.

That’s changed.

Meredith Cucuel, chief of administration for the 31st Security Forces Squadron, said the wait now is usually less than three weeks. That brings Aviano a bit ahead of its counterparts in Vicenza, Naples and Sigonella, where the averages range from three to six weeks.

To reduce the wait, Cucuel said, the office in Pordenone that issues the plates had to free up more time for employees to process them.

So cooperation on the part of the Italians is essential. And she said local officials have been very helpful and understanding.

Those words were echoed by a U.S. official in Rome, who said a memorandum of understanding between the two countries was “very close” to being signed. Such an agreement would help standardize the process across Italy and should make the plates cheaper and easier to get for Americans.

“Because there are a number of agencies involved, it has taken a while to negotiate,” said Lt. Col. Terrie Gent, the staff judge advocate at Aviano.

Officials from the Italian ministries of foreign affairs, defense, interior and transportation all have a say in the issue.

“I think the good news is that all of the parties recognize the urgency of this,” the U.S. official said.

So it should be easier for those stationed at Navy bases around Naples and in Sigonella to get the plates as well. But the Navy hasn’t pushed as hard on the issue as the Air Force and Army have.

Lt. Susan Henson, a spokeswoman at Naples, said only about 3 percent of those stationed in Naples drive with cover plates. The numbers aren’t much higher in Sicily, according to Lt. Steve Curry, a public affairs officer at Sigonella.

Henson said the Navy’s stance was neutral regarding cover plates, adding that there are both positive and negative factors to consider.

“We don’t encourage it or discourage it,” she said. “It is a personal choice. If we encourage anything, it is to make an informed decision.”

Henson said the command has studied the issue and “the statistics show that [cars with AFI plates] weren’t any more likely to be broken into than cover-plated vehicles.”

Cover plates issued in Italy are identical to those given to the Italian population, as opposed to Germany, where American cars still bear small “USA” logos, and cover plates generally have specific letter designations reserved for Americans.

Because of that, Henson said it’s tough to spot other Americans driving cover-plated vehicles in Italy.

So Americans might be less likely to help cover-plated vehicles stopped on the road than they would cars with AFI plates. And Americans get involved in thousands of accidents in Italy each year.

Gent and Morris say they want the vehicles to be hard to pick out. Gent said the hope is that the military would be issued large blocks of plates that it would lease to servicemembers while they’re stationed in Italy.

Such blocks wouldn’t carry any particular designation to tell people where the car was registered, although Italian police would have the information instantly available to them.

Morris said getting Italian plates is in line with force-protection advisories the base regularly issues.

One such leaflet stuffed into mail boxes recently advised people: “Do not display decals, stickers or other items that signify American ownership.”

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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