The new veterans ID cards were mandated by a 2015 law. But some veterans groups are raising questions about the possibility that the cards will include corporate branding.
The idea seemed simple enough. Some veterans needed an easy way to document their service.
For some, it was just a matter of pride. But others had a more practical reason: They needed an ID card to qualify for veterans-only discounts at stores, restaurants, and other businesses.
"There are so many companies that offer discounts," said Ryan Guiana, the founder of The Military Wallet website. "It might be five percent off or ten percent off, and it could be just something like a free drink."
So, two and a half years ago, Congress overwhelmingly passed a law which required the Department of Veterans Affairs to issue veterans ID cards. Now, the VA is finally beginning to accept online applications for the card at its VA.gov website.
"The new Veterans Identification Card provides a safer and more convenient and efficient way for most veterans to show proof of service," VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a news release.
The agency has released few additional details about the program. But Office Depot says it's finalizing a deal with the VA to print and distribute the card at no cost to veterans. A prototype card leaked in October carried the Office Depot logo, though the design of the actual card has not yet been released.
"Office Depot is donating the printing and shipping of the cards to veterans after VA processes and approves the applications," VA spokesman Curtis Cashour said in an email.
The possibility of commercial branding troubles Carl Hunsinger of the Manatee County Veterans’ Council in Florida.
Hunsinger, who's retired from the Air Force, worries the card won't be taken seriously.
"If my retirement card had Home Depot, or Office Depot, or some logo of some business on the back of it, that would not set well with me whatsoever, because it is just not professional."
As a military retiree, Hunsinger already has a government ID card, as do veterans who get care through the VA health system. But Hunsinger has pushed for years for a more universal veterans ID, which would also be available to the subset of non-retirees who don't use VA health care.
Hunsinger brought the idea to the bill's sponsor, Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan, after he saw a homeless vet struggling to open his discharge papers at a local shelter.
"I could not believe low hanging fruit like that, something that was very much needed did not exist," Hunsinger said.
Veterans groups say there's been a lot of interest in the card since Congress passed the bill, and it got more intense recently, as the VA said the release date was getting close.
"We do get a lot of calls," said Adonis Relieve, a Veterans Service Officer for San Diego County, California. "They just want to know when it's going to be, because some of them really would like to have this kind of ID."
Relieve said he's met veterans who've been carrying their discharge papers -- a form known as a DD-214 -- folded in their wallets for decades. That's a security risk, because the DD-214 contains social security numbers and other personal information.
"They take it out from their wallet, and I've said stop it. Don't even open it," Relieve said.
Even before Congress acted, many states were trying to address the issue by adding a veterans designation to drivers licenses. In the years since Congress passed the law, the idea has spread to nearly every state.
The VA said it will not make the new federal ID available to former service members with less-than-honorable discharges. The agency also emphasized that the card won’t qualify veterans for VA services, such as healthcare or disability benefits. There's also no assurance that any individual merchant will recognize the card as proof that a customer served in the military.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.