Veterans groups complain of stigma

Law aims to aid in stressful situations

Reaction is mixed to a new law that allows service members and veterans to have a notation on their driver's license that they've been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

Advocates say it's a way to warn law enforcement at a traffic stop that the driver has a sensitive condition and should be treated with care.

Critics argue that it reinforces the stigma that veterans with PTSD are ticking time bombs and could foster discrimination against people with mental illness.

The law, which went into effect July 1, requires veterans to bring paperwork from their doctor or psychologist proving their condition.

Georgia's Department of Driver Services will then imprint "post traumatic stress disorder" on the back of the license in the same area where "corrective lenses" or other medical conditions are noted, spokeswoman Susan Sports said.

The law is especially germane to this area, with soldiers commuting to Fort Gordon and veterans traveling to Augusta's hospitals. Among them are thousands of people living with PTSD, she said.

Dr. Lorraine Braswell, the director of the PTSD clinic at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, sees a big benefit coming from the PTSD notifications. Most people with PTSD function normally on an everyday basis, she said, but stress can cause certain symptoms of PTSD to flare.

Getting pulled over or having a wreck is already stressful, and having PTSD can heighten anxiety. That, in turn, impairs the driver's ability to clearly communicate with an officer, who might already be on edge, Braswell said.

The notification will cue the officer to take it easy, speak slowly and give the driver some space, Braswell said. She said instances of violence triggered by PTSD are rare and "overemphasized."

Richmond County sheriff's Maj. Richard Weaver said anything that gives a deputy a better understanding of a person's mental or physical state is beneficial. Low blood sugar, for instance, can cause a diabetic to appear drunk.

"I can see where (a PTSD notification) would be helpful," Weaver said.

Many veterans groups, however, are vehemently opposed.

Ryan Gallucci, the spokesman for AMVETS, said even though the designation is voluntary, "it opens up the potential for discrimination."

A driver's license is not just for driving, but also is identification in a number of scenarios, including buying alcohol and guns or entry to a nightclub, Gallucci said.

The concern is that a veteran would be denied service because a proprietor has the false impression that the veteran is on the brink of snapping, Gallucci said.

"It's an unintended consequence of the law," Gallucci said.

State Sen. John Douglas, a co-signer of the law, said its original intent was to facilitate communication between a driver and law enforcement during a traffic stop or other encounter.

When he was asked for an endorsement by the bill's author, Sen. Ron Ramsey, "I didn't see any difficulty with it at the time," Douglas said, particularly because it was voluntary.

Douglas said he has no experience with veterans or law enforcement.

Veterans groups did not pick up on the bill during debate because it went through the Public Safety Committee, not the Veterans Committee. Douglas said after he was contacted by concerned veterans he unsuccessfully asked the governor to veto the bill.

Ramsey did not respond to an e-mail or phone message requesting comment.

The law

A Georgia law that went into effect July 1 voluntarily allows veterans and service members suffering from post traumatic stress disorder to indicate their condition on their driver's license with proof from a doctor or psychologist.

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