Vet Applies for Federal 'Real ID' Card, Ends Up Losing Driver's License and Citizenship


Editor’s Note: Our readers responded strongly to this story when it originally ran; we’re reposting it here in case you missed it.

David O’Connor, a Navy veteran who has lived in this country for over 70 years, wanted a Tennessee “Real ID” driver’s license. He ended up with the state essentially stripping him of his American citizenship, at least for administrative purposes.

According to WTVF-TV in Nashville, in early June, O’Connor “went to the Driver Service Center in McMinn County to not only renew his driver’s license but get one of the new enhanced or Real IDs.”

Real ID requires certain documents to prove citizenship. It was created by an act of Congress in 2005, in the wake of 9/11, to require certain sets of rules for obtaining identification cards — including driver’s licenses — that could be used to, among other things, board airline flights.

The original deadline for non-Real ID driver’s licenses and ID cards to be accepted was supposed to be May 11, 2008. This was problematic enough that it’s been pushed back numerous times; at this point, the final implementation is scheduled for May 7, 2025, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Real ID website.

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The 17-year delay alone should be an augury as to just how problematic the program is.

There are several ways to prove one’s citizenship or lawful permanent residency, according to the state of Tennessee’s website.

This includes “Official Birth Certificate issued by a U.S. state, jurisdiction or territory (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Swain’s Island, Guam),” “U.S. Government-issued Certified Birth Certificate,” “U.S. Certificate of Birth Abroad (DS-1350 or FS-545)” or “Valid, unexpired U.S. Passport.”

Therein apparently lies the problem. Even though he served in the U.S. military and has held commercial truck driver’s licenses for many years in many states, including Tennessee, O’Connor was born in Canada.

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So, despite the fact that he’s 77 years old, has lived in the country for seven decades and has been driving for 61 years, he’s now parked by the state because he does not have appropriate identification, in its eyes, to be counted as an American.

“They told me I shouldn’t have had the license in the first place ’cause I couldn’t prove that I was a citizen,” O’Connor told WTVF.

“They said, ‘No, that’s no good. We shouldn’t have given you the license in the first place,'” he said. “And they just canceled my license right then and there.”

“It just blows my mind,” his wife, Jean, told the station.

“I am flabbergasted. I am outraged that, at 77 years old, he is now considered a non-citizen by the country that he has lived in his whole life,” she said.

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See, O’Connor has — as one would expect — a Canadian birth certificate. It states on there that both of his parents were American.

“His American-born parents had temporarily relocated to Canada and soon after O’Connor was born, the family moved back to the U.S.,” WTVF’s report July 3 said.

“And since both of his parents were U.S. citizens, and you can see that right there on his birth certificate, the law stated O’Connor is a U.S. citizen, too,” it said.

“It says on my paperwork I am a U.S. citizen,” O’Connor told the station.

He has voted “every year.” He has a Social Security card, and, since he is retired, he has been receiving benefits. He was able to join the Navy as a sonar tech at age 17 and served for four years. He held a commercial driver’s license in four states — New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and, yes, Tennessee.

Until he went in for a Real ID, nobody in officialdom ever questioned whether David O’Connor was an American. But now, the state no longer considers him an American citizen — nor eligible to drive.

“I’ve been here for 77 years,” O’Connor said, telling the station, “None of this [situation] makes any sense to me.”

Nor does it make any sense to his wife.

“Now?!” she said. “That’s the thing. Why now? At 77 years old? Are you kidding me? It’s unbelievable.”

The Nashville outlet went to the state’s homeland security secretary, Jeff Long, recounting O’Connor’s struggles, which have now gone on for over a month.

Long’s response?

“I can understand that, but everyone has to realize that after 9/11, the Real ID is very specific and has a federal requirement of what you have to have,” he said.

Long said “he’d look into it and help however he could, which was more than employees at the state’s Driver Service Center, where they told O’Connor that he would need to apply for citizenship, in other words, file paperwork to become a U.S. citizen, a process, mind you, that takes time,” WTVF reported.

Unfortunately, this maze of bureaucracy is all too believable for anyone who witnesses how governments handle licensure, especially with a quasi-federal ID card.

The Real ID program essentially requires states to agree to a least-common-denominator of security precautions — with the result being an increasingly greater number of hoops for people to jump through to get it that varies by state but keeps Washington happy.

In this case, a man who has been able to vote in federal elections, serve his country, drive a commercial vehicle in it and receive retirement benefits from it cannot be proved to be American, at least by the standards of Real ID as regarded by Tennessee.

At a micro level, therefore, this is about the unnecessary and onerous nature of Real ID, which plugged an imaginary hole in the years following 9/11 and has not been abandoned even though the ability of a terrorist to obtain state identification was the least of our worries following the attacks.

In supporting evidence, I give you the fact we will, this September, have gone 23 years without any similar attacks, all in the 19 years since the Real ID legislation was passed and all with another eight months before the legislation finally takes full effect.

Or else, we are to believe that legislation so ridiculously unwieldy to be fully implemented has nevertheless been able to stop attacks without being in force.

At a macro level, this is another story about the failure of government licensure, period. This man can’t drive a truck because his birth certificate is Canadian, even though it says he’s an American and he’s been treated as an American by American authorities for 77 years.

But then you have to pay the government for the privilege of being able to cut people’s hair or do their nails, for instance. According to a 2022 article in the libertarian outlet Reason, recent studies have indicated roughly a quarter of the American workforce now needs state occupational licensure to practice their profession.

Perhaps you can make the case that commercial truck drivers should have to demonstrate certain standards to the state to prove they can drive large trucks.

The irony, of course, is that David O’Connor was able to do that — and maintain a CDL in good standing. All he wants to do now is drive his truck. And he can’t, because, under the government’s standards, he’s not even an American.

“It’s like your country don’t want you,” O’Connor said. “I’ve tried to do things the right way all my life. And now it’s like I’m nothing.

And to the state, he’s more or less correct. He’s a number, and the number doesn’t check off all the boxes. So that number gets put into bureaucratic limbo.

If there was ever an object lesson in what’s wrong with handing over more power to the federal government, this is it.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture