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Veteran wants proof you deserve that Marine Corps license plate

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa (Fla.) Tribune (TNS) | Published: October 30, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. — Earlier this month, Connie O’Dell went to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Ruskin, Fla., to get a new license plate for her husband, Navy veteran Mike O’Dell.

As a result, O’Dell is on a new mission: trying to change how plates commemorating the five branches of the armed services are issued in Florida.

O’Dell says his wife saw a Navy license plate, asked whether she could purchase it and was told she could — even though she was never in the Navy and didn’t have to show discharge papers or any other proof that she served.

O’Dell said he did some research and found out those are indeed the rules in Florida. But he wants them changed.

“I asked at least three or four dozen veterans since then, and none of them were aware that the people driving around with those license plates weren’t necessarily in the service,” said O’Dell, who served in the Navy from 1971 to 1973. “They were not happy to find that out. We served our country. We deserve those plates. Those who did not don’t deserve those plates.”

The bigger issue, O’Dell said, is concern that non-veterans might try to pass themselves off as veterans. He said civilians who want to show their support should get a “supporter” plate instead.

Since then, O’Dell has reached out to government officials and veterans groups around the nation.

One of them was Frank Strom, interim director of Hillsborough County (Fla.) Consumer and Veteran Services. After hearing from O’Dell, Strom said he shares his concerns about opportunities for possible misrepresentation presented by the plates.

“My concern is the individuals who attempt to perpetrate military service may see this as another avenue,” said Strom, who retired in 2004 as a first sergeant after 20 years in the Marine Corps.

Mike Boucher, president of Chapter 522 of Vietnam Veterans of America, said he is going to bring the issue up next month at the Florida Veterans Council, a group made up of veterans service organizations like his, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America and others. It was created to spur legislation supporting veterans, their families and surviving spouses.

One person who will attend that meeting, scheduled for Nov. 18 in Orlando, Fla., is Steve Murray. A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who serves as spokesman for the State Department of Veterans Affairs, Murray said there is a good reason that the service plates — about 110,000 of them were issued last year — are open to all.

The $15 surcharge for those plates, as well as other military-themed specialty plates, raised about $2.6 million last year, according to Murray. That money went to capital improvements for the state’s seven veterans nursing home centers, including the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Land O’ Lakes. The money fixes things such as broken air conditioners and roof leaks in homes serving almost 900 veterans so taxpayers don’t have to pay the upkeep.

Revenue for the Marine Corps plate is also shared with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation Inc., which raises money for children of Marine veterans.

“They are meant to show pride and patriotism,” Murray said.

The U.S. Marine Corps plate was the most popular of the five service plates, according to Florida figures, with more than 38,000 issued in 2014. That was the seventh most popular of the state’s more than 1.3 million specialty plates representing more than 120 different types.

The Army plate was the state’s 12th most popular, with more than 26,000 issued. The Air Force came in 19th with almost 20,000 plates issued. The Navy came in at 22 with almost 19,000 plates issued and the Coast Guard came in 52nd with just more than 7,200 plates issued.

Limiting the service plates to just servicemembers “would most certainly diminish” the amount of money available to the state’s veteran nursing homes, Murray said.

That argument doesn’t sway Navy veteran O’Dell.

“I wouldn’t care if they raised three trillion dollars,” he said. “We have enough problems with stolen valor out there.”

Strom, from Hillsborough County, has a similar concern.

“The funds received from military license plates do contribute to our state nursing home programs,” he said. “However, consideration should be given to Veteran Service Branch plates in terms of service verification. A viable option to be considered could be to create a service plate that is stamped with the word supporter. I intend to initiate communications with the state to address the issue at hand.”

Murray points out that there are many military plates that do require proof of service. That includes the one he just signed up for.

“I have a November birthday,” Murray said. “It was time for me to physically replace my license plate, and so I got an Operation Iraqi Freedom plate for my car. I had to show my DD214 (discharge papers), and I showed them I had a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, which showed I had been in Iraq.”

The same proof of service is required for more than two dozen other plates, ranging from those commemorating Afghanistan, medals such as the Medal of Honor, Silver Star, Purple Heart and others as well as those commemorating status as a prisoner of war or a Gold Star family member who lost a loved one to service.

Plates for the Korean and Vietnam wars were issued in the past three years, Murray said. A plate for those who served in World War II and one for female veterans will be available in about two months, he said.

There’s even a new plate for veterans, Murray said. Introduced in July, there are now about 600 on the road, he said.

All require proof of service to obtain, Murray said.

And well before the service plates came on line, the state issued a “Florida Supports Veterans” plate in 1986, Murray said.

Similar to what O’Dell is suggesting, 16,000 of them were issued last year.

It was the state’s 26th most popular plate, ahead of ones for Florida A&M, the Miami Dolphins, the University of South Florida and In God We Trust.

©2015 the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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