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In an effort to further honor Maryland veterans and make it easier for them to receive benefits and services, lawmakers have unanimously approved legislation that will allow for a veteran status on driver’s licenses and identification cards.

Under the bill, beginning next year veterans can request a document certifying their status from the Department of Veterans Affairs and then take it to a local Motor Vehicle Administration office to have a notation put on their driver’s license or ID card.

On applications for driver’s licenses and ID cards, veterans will be able to consent to being contacted by state agencies regarding their eligibility for state and federal veterans benefits.

Both the House of Delegates and Senate passed their own versions of the bill March 8 and 14, respectively, both times without a single nay vote. The Senate approved the House bill March 26 by a vote of 46-0, sending the bill to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk for signature.

Veterans’ issues are “one of the few things that both sides can readily step forward and agree on,” said Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), who served in the U.S. Army from 1990 until 1997. He called the legislation a “small point of recognition” for the state’s veterans.

The state already exempts some disabled veterans from vehicle registration fees.

“I think it’s going to make it a lot easier for veterans to prove their veteran status without having to carry the actual [DD Form 214] document around,” Waldorf resident and state Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gregory N. Jones said. “A lot of businesses [that offer veteran discounts] require proof that you’re a veteran and this will allow them to have that proof readily available.”

In addition, with a “significant” number of veterans returning from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, Jones said the law might help avoid “run-ins” between veterans and law enforcement.

By looking at a veteran’s driver’s license, “officers will be able to identify that person as a veteran and maybe take other actions or steps to direct that person to other help they need ... and maybe eliminate hauling these guys off to jail,” Jones said.

“We’re trying to do some more things for veterans to let them know you are set apart from those who have not served,” Wilson said. “It’s something small. It’s not going to change much, but it’s just something to let them know we’re thinking about you.”

If all 466,000 of the state’s veterans were to renew their driver’s licenses or ID cards outside of the standard renewal cycle, wait times at local MVA offices could go up by a minute, according to an analysis of the bill by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

“Creating a ‘veteran’ status on Maryland driver’s licenses is a simple way to help us connect veterans to numerous state programs and initiatives by better identifying those who are eligible,” Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, said in a release. “It will also make it easier for veterans to identify themselves when accessing the various benefits, discounts and services they have earned.”

State Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) added, “It’s the least we can do. ... There’s a long war that’s cost so many lives and when you look at the amount of veterans that have not served one, but two or three and sometimes four tours, given their lives and been separated from their families, that’s a heck of a duty to your country.”

But lawmakers still need to do more to ensure returning veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned, he added.

“The consequences of this war have real, real deep mental health problems, so we need to be aware of that and make sure that our returning vets get the assistance [and] the help that they need,” Middleton said. “That’s the flesh on the bones. When we stand up and salute them, that’s great, but it’s got to be more than that.”

jnewman@somdnews.com