The red-and-yellow ribbon on that car tag isn’t the wrong decoration, exactly. But it isn’t quite right either.
"I'd think a veteran who gets one of these would say, 'Gee, that's the wrong medal,'" said Holtzclaw.
More than 5,000 cars on Alabama roads today carry license plates that bear the legend “Persian Gulf Veteran, Desert Shield, Desert Storm.” And on the left side of the tag is the image of the National Defense Service Medal, a medal issued to anyone who’s served in the military in wartime, regardless of their location.
It’s not the Southwest Asia Service Medal — the tan, striped medal the military created to honor people who deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
To most people, that’s probably a matter of trivia. But to someone like Holtzclaw, who served as a Marine in Desert Storm and later Somalia, it’s as recognizable as a sour note in a symphony.
“It’s an unfortunate thing,” said Holtzclaw.
The Southwest Asia Medal is a campaign medal — a device created specifically to honor veterans of a single war. It’s an honor veterans tend to take seriously. The red-yellow-and-green stripes of the Vietnam Service Medal, for instance, have become a near-universal symbol of the Vietnam vet.
Those stripes are on the state’s car tag for Vietnam vets. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans can buy license plates that bear the campaign medal for the conflicts they were in. So can World War II veterans. Even the Persian Gulf tag carried an image of the proper campaign medal — until it was redesigned two years ago.
The Star set out last week to find out why the medal on the license plate was changed. The answer is complicated.
The state created specialty license plates for war veterans around 20 years ago, part of a nationwide trend toward allowing drivers to celebrate their service on the backs of their cars.
There are three plates for World War II — one for each campaign medal issued during the war. There's a plate for service in Europe, one for the Pacific and one for service stateside.
With Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf, state officials had a tougher choice. They could give tags only to people who served overseas — the folks most people would identify as war veterans — or extend the privilege to anybody who served during that war, anywhere in the world.
State officials chose the latter.
“The reason is that although these veterans served stateside, they still supported the war effort,” said Robert Horton, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs.
Horton said the state doesn’t know how many people with Korea and Vietnam tags — which bear the words “Korean War Veteran” and “Vietnam Veteran” — are actually non-combat veterans who never left the United States.
With the Persian Gulf tag, things got weird. Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. The U.S. began an assault to take back Kuwait on Jan. 17, 1991 and declared the tiny country liberated on Feb. 28, 1991. For many people, those dates mark the thing known as the “Gulf War.”
But someone in Washington forgot to turn off the war. Or at least, that’s how Alabama officials see it.
“Congress has not officially ended the war,” Horton said. Lacking an official end date for Desert Storm, Horton said, the state treats any military service after Aug. 2, 1990 as Desert Storm service, at least for purposes of buying a car tag. Anyone who served anywhere in the world since that time is eligible.
A child born on Aug. 2, 1990 would be 23 years old today — old enough to have completed a four-year enlistment in the military. The Star asked Horton if such a person would be eligible for a Desert Storm car tag.
"That's correct, if that person was a veteran," Horton said.
The state dropped the Southwest Asia Service Medal from the tag, Horton said, due to the complaints of Desert Storm veterans. Those veterans, he said, were concerned that some veterans were displaying the campaign ribbon when they didn’t earn it.
Nearly everyone who served in the military in the last two decades has the red-and-yellow National Defense medal. So the state put that medal on the license plate instead.
“We did it to ensure that the medal on the license plate accurately reflects the service of the veteran,” Horton said.
Problem solved. But not for Holtzclaw. He believes Desert Storm veterans would prefer to have a license plate that carries their campaign medal.
“There should be something for people who actually deployed to the Gulf,” he said.
In 2012, Holtzclaw filed a bill to create a second Desert Storm tag for veterans with the campaign medal. It didn’t pass, but he said he might bring the bill back in 2014.
The state Department of Veterans Affairs supported Holtzclaw’s bill, Horton said.
Holtzclaw’s bill would limit the Southwest Asia tag to people who served in the Middle East — but not necessarily to people who served in the 42-day Gulf War. For years after the war, the military gave the medal to people who served in the Middle East, and noted them in military records as Desert Storm veterans. Other military operations in the Gulf in the interwar period, such as Operation Desert Fox, have almost no name recognition among the public.
Technically, there’s not a campaign medal on either the Korean War or Vietnam car tags. The Korea tag has a symbol noting the 60th anniversary of the conflict. The Vietnam tag carries the red, green and yellow emblem of Vietnam Veterans of America, a group that accepts, as members, anyone who served during the years of the war, even if they didn’t go to Southeast Asia.
Drivers who sport Iraq War or Afghanistan War tags are veterans who served in those conflicts in-country, Horton said. There’s another medal — Global War on Terrorism Medal — for people who served outside of those war zones. Alabama has a license plate for that one, too.
Military specialty tags typically add $3 to the cost of car registration in the first year they're issued. The Vietnam tag adds $6 per year, $3 of which goes to the state, while the other $3 goes to Vietnam Veterans of America.
The Gulf and Vietnam plates are the state's best-selling war-related car tags. Vietnam Veteran tags were on 12,197 cars in 2012, according to state records, and 5,655 cars had Desert Storm tags. The there were 4,309 Iraq War plates and 1,531 plates for Afghanistan veterans during the same time.
Thirty-nine Pearl Harbor survivor plates were on Alabama residents' cars last year. Only 802 World War II veteran plates remain in circulation.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.