Oklahoma loves its veterans.
Whether through tax breaks, reduced fees, or just a simple handshake and 'thank you', Oklahomans go out of their way to recognize and honor the sacrifices of those who put on the uniform of the red, white, and blue.
Sadly, there are some people in the state -- a few thousand, at least -- who take advantage of this good will, which is one reason state leaders are looking to create, for the first time, a veterans registry.
Lt. Col. (ret'd) Kennan Horn works at UCO, where he helps veteran students know what their benefits are. The 20-year army veteran learned a thing or two about benefits through his own experience -- he's legally blind from an eye disease he contracted while stationed in Turkey.
"And I realized, 'Hey, I get a hunting license out of this deal'," Horn recalled, in a recent interview.
In Oklahoma, veterans can get everything from free admission to state parks and discounted hunting and fishing licenses, to preference in state hiring and significant tax breaks.
"It's a level of service that I just really didn't expect," Horn admitted.
The benefits are the state's way of thanking veterans like Horn and it burns them to know there are people who pose as vets, so they can get the same benefits.
"I mean, a lot of us fought for this country and respect the flag," said Bobby Bryant, immediate past president of the Oklahoma Department of the American Legion, "and we don't like to see anybody taking advantage of that, when they didn't serve at all."
Some of the fraud is perpetrated at tag agencies, where Oklahomans can get a special veterans designation on their driver's license, by providing proof of their service. Typically, veterans show their DD-214's -- their official discharge documents -- but the documents are not difficult to forge, and, under the present system, it's completely up to the tag agent to figure out if they're legitimate.
"That's an unfair burden to put on the tag agent," said Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, "because they're really oftentimes not trained to do that."
Since 2014, according to the Department of Public Safety, more than 70,000 Oklahomans have been given veteran status on their driver’s licenses.
Officials say they don't know how many of those were fraudulently obtained, but they have a better handle, they say. on the number of people who are cheating the state out of sales tax.
A veteran with a 100 percent disability rating, certified by the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs (ODVA), is entitled to a full exemption from state sales tax, up to $25,000 annually.
"It appears that the Oklahoma Tax Commission has a very high number (of exemptions)," said Doug Elliott, ODVA Deputy Director, "compared to the number of certificates that we have issued, to the tune of about three to one."
ODVA's Elliott says his agency has issued about 12,000 certificates, while the Tax Commission shows 31,000 people are getting the sales tax exemption.
Whether at tag agencies or the Tax Commission, state officials believe the way to stop the fraud is by creating a veterans registry that would be managed by ODVA.
"If we had a list from the Department of Veterans Affairs and we could match it," said Paula Ross, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Tax Commission, "that would be something that wouldn't be difficult for us to do."
Leaders of the Department of Public Safety have also indicated state tag agents would be willing to work with ODVA in verifying veterans status through a state registry before issuing the special veterans driver's licenses.
Officially, the state currently estimates there are 336,000 veterans who call Oklahoma home. Unofficially, ODVA believes that is about 150,000 under the true number. The result, they say, is that state is missing out on millions of dollars in federal VA benefits, and can't reach all the men and women who are entitled to those benefits.
This, ODVA officials say, is another reason to create a registry.
"It's imperative," Deputy Director Elliott stated, "if we're going to get the proper representation, the proper benefits to all the veterans in our state."
Earlier this fall, ODVA and legislative leaders said they would likely introduce legislation for the 2017 session to create a veterans registration process, similar to one recently enacted, with success, in Nebraska. This month, however, Veterans Affairs officials said that plan had been pulled off the table, because the federal VA had approved a new ID card system which would essentially accomplish the same thing.
State leaders say they don't want to waste state money -- perhaps as much as $80,000 the first year -- on a redundant program. The only problem with that position, they acknowledge, is that the federal initiative has yet to be funded.