Two years ago, Congress and President Barack Obama shared a rare moment of bipartisanship, coming together to promise military veterans hard-copy photo IDs with passage of the 2015 Veterans Identification Card Act. In recent days, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Dr. David Shulkin, has publicly extolled those cards as “an obligation to those who raise their hand,” and anticipation over their arrival has snowballed since Military.com broke the news earlier this month.
But even as the Department of Veterans Affairs prepares to accept applications for the new cards in November, sources tell Task & Purpose that the ID program is mired in questions and problems, with representatives of the VA offering contradictory and confusing answers, and a bureaucracy-laden verification system that could lock out some of the nation’s most vulnerable veterans.
At issue is whether the ID cards will be available only to honorably discharged vets or offered to veterans with “bad paper,” other-than-honorable and general discharges; whether the VA is entering into sponsorships with private companies to produce the cards — and include corporate logos on them; and whether veterans need cellphone contracts in order to enter an online national registry, a step that must be completed before they can even apply for the cards.
The mixed messages have left veterans service organizations and their constituencies befuddled. Earlier this week, AMVETS received a printed mockup of the VA veteran ID card — with an Office Depot logo emblazoned across it. “This takes a leap down a slippery slope that raises serious questions, starting with, ‘What's next?’” Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, told Task & Purpose.
The VA is sending mixed messages about whether veterans with less-than-honorable discharges are eligible.
According to the Veterans Identification Act, the VA must issue hard-copy photo IDs to any veteran who applies and pays a fee. The law does not stipulate that an honorable discharge is required.
However, when the VA begins accepting applications for the cards in November, veterans with less-than-honorable discharges will not be eligible to apply. “Only those Veterans with honorable service will be eligible for the ID card,” VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour told Task & Purpose in an email on Oct. 18.
That doesn’t accord with assurances Cashour’s boss has given to vets in recent weeks.
“This takes a leap down a slippery slope that raises serious questions, starting with, ‘What's next?’”
VA staff discussed the new ID cards with veterans service organizations in a closed meeting on Oct. 6. According to multiple VSO representatives who were present, the VA briefed attendees on a multi-phase process for releasing the ID cards: Veterans with honorable discharges would be eligible to register and receive an ID during “phase one.” Future phases, the VA officials said, could involve broadening eligibility for the ID cards.
Shulkin, the VA secretary, expanded on the possibility of ID cards for vets with “bad paper” discharges at a town hall meeting with employees and community organizers in Manhattan on Oct. 12. “We have an obligation to those who raise their hand, and for reasons sometimes not related to their own fault, have received an other-than-honorable discharge,” he said in answer to a question about the card issue. “Which is different, as you know, than a dishonorable discharge.”
Shulkin has been an advocate for veterans with bad paper since President Donald Trump tapped him to lead the department last winter. In July, Shulkin ordered the VA to extend limited emergency access to mental healthcare to more than 500,000 veterans who were previously ineligible for VA services because of their less-than-honorable discharges. It was a bold move for a newly minted VA secretary.
But in the New York town hall, Shulkin balked when asked why he would expand access to free emergency mental health care to a group of veterans while keeping them ineligible for a federal identification card aimed largely at helping former service members take advantage of veteran discounts and benefits in their communities.
“There are strong feelings on this topic of identity, and we want to make sure that we are sensitive to all of our stakeholders’ feelings on that,” Shulkin said. “I will assure you we will bring that up in the near future. It would not be hard for us. In fact, we found a sponsor for these cards, so it wouldn’t even cost us any money. This is just a matter of let’s consult all the stakeholders.”
Asked about his boss’s statements and whether they might portend a change to the department’s exclusion of bad-paper vets from the ID program, Cashour, the VA press secretary, replied with a single emailed line: "You have VA's position on eligibility."
“This is an example of the VA making up its own rules to leave vets with bad paper behind,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, assistant director of policy and government for Vietnam Veterans of America, one of several VSOs that endorsed the Veterans Identification Act. “The veteran identity is in that card, so I think to tell a veteran that they are not eligible for the card is deeply harmful.”
Other VSOs were just happy to see the ID-card legislation finally enacted, despite the eligibility limitations — and despite the fact that it’s two years late. “It is great that the VA finally is moving forward to implement the Veterans ID Card Act of 2015,” Joe Plenzler, director of media affairs for American Legion, told Task & Purpose. “The law said the VA had 60 days to enact this legislation, and The American Legion continued to press Congress to force the VA to comply.”
The new ID card will be brought to you by Office Depot.
There was also Shulkin’s cryptic town hall statement that “we found a sponsor for these cards, so it wouldn’t even cost us any money.”
On Wednesday, AMVETS, one of the largest national VSOs, tweeted images of the new ID card. On the back side of the card is an Office Depot logo. The company’s logo is accompanied by a message: “Saluting you today and every day,” it reads. “Thanks for taking care of business.”
But Cashour, the VA press secretary, was adamant: “It’s not a sponsorship,” he told Task & Purpose by email. “Office Depot is printing and providing the cards to Veterans after VA approves applications for the cards. Under the arrangement, Veterans will pay no fees for the cards.”
The VA briefed the Senate and House Committees on Veterans Affairs “multiple times about the agreement with Office Depot on the cards,” Cashour said, adding, “More details will be forthcoming as the ID card program is rolled out next month.”
But the lack of details right now concerns some VSOs. “I understand thinking outside the box to satisfy the requirement,” Chenelly said about the VA’s Office Depot agreement. “But I don't like the idea that a corporation can buy influence through our federal government. Is Office Depot now the official office supply retailer of veterans?”
A senior manager of public relations at Office Depot told Task & Purpose Oct. 18 that she was not aware of any partnership or sponsorship with the VA, but would look into it. (We will update this article with additional information as we get it.)
To receive an ID, veterans will have to have to register with Vets.gov, which is still a work in progress.
Veterans who want one of the new ID cards will need to submit an application online, though VA has yet to announce the specific website address where they can apply. When the VA does start accepting applications sometime in November, applying veterans will need a recent photo to upload, as well as a valid government photo ID and a Social Security number.
Before veterans can apply for the card, however, they must register with Vets.gov, a website that authorizes users through ID.me, a third-party company contracted by the VA to support identity and authentication. (The VA points out that there is an alternative, slightly less apparent registration method, explained below.) Veterans registering with Vets.gov to access its other services have already encountered unexpected obstacles on the website. ID.me has been working to expand access to Vets.gov by removing some of those obstacles.
For example, prior to Aug. 15, veterans registering through ID.me had to provide a phone number tied to a contract and registered in the owner’s name. That excluded any veterans who could not afford phone contracts or relied on prepaid phone plans, which often serve as a “lifeline for low-income consumers and people with bad credit,” the Los Angeles Times noted in 2013.
“Without a non prepaid phone number in your name, it will not be possible to access Vets.gov,” an ID.me representative wrote in July in an email to a veteran that was shared with Task & Purpose. “If your number is non-prepaid and the bill is in your name, please let me know so we can troubleshoot further,” the rep added elsewhere.
That system was updated two months ago to allow veterans with prepaid plans to register, according to a statement from ID.me provided after we published this article. Veterans using Google Voice or Skype are still locked out due to concerns over security and identification fraud.
“It should no longer be an issue,” ID.me Chief Marketing Officer Julie Filion told Task & Purpose. The fact that any vets with prepaid phones had issues is a result of anti-fraud measures. “Veterans are one of the biggest victims of identity theft so it’s important that we have to make sure that the veteran who is trying to access the site is, in fact, that veteran,” Filion said. “You always have to balance security and access… We are constantly trying to expand access without compromising security.”
After this story was published, the VA’s Cashour responded to T&P;’s earlier questions about the phone issue, explaining that Vets.gov had recently added DS Logon as an alternative registration method that might work for veterans without postpaid phone contracts. We have published a post explaining that process, which is not immediately obvious on the webpage.
Cashour also acknowledged that vets may not have received the best guidance on registration from phone reps. “We are working with our call center reps to make sure they have the most accurate information,” he said in an email.
Chris Jones contributed to this reporting.
UPDATE: This article was updated to include information about DS Logon and a statement from VA Press Secretary Curtis Cashour (Updated 10/19/2017; 3:24 pm EST).
UPDATE: This article was updated to reflect that ID.me changed their authentication processes to improve access for prepaid phone plan holders registering with Vets.gov through ID.me (Updated 10/20/2017; 6:00 pm EST).