Leo Thomas was looking forward to getting a specialty license plate honoring his service in the Korean War, where he served two years as an Army ammunitions specialist.
But as soon as he took his new plate from a clerk in Pasco County's tax office, he handed it right back.
The wording referred to the "Korean Conflict."
"We lost 30,000 men in three years. That's not a conflict. That's a war," said Thomas, 82.
He didn't stop there. He turned to his legislator, Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, to try to change the plates to read "Korean War Veteran."
"This is something that's been going on for so long, I just got fed up with it," he said.
About 100 miles northeast in Eustis, Tom Thiel, past president of the Korean War Veterans Association of Lake County, was annoyed, too, arguing that "Korean Conflict" diminishes the veterans' service. He too went to his lawmaker, Rep. Larry Metz, R-Groveland.
Thomas and Thiel have never met. They didn't know the other had sought to change the military-themed tags. But now the two are sharing a victory of sorts because while "Korean Conflict" might not disappear entirely from usage, at least it won't show up on Florida tags after July 1.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill by Metz and co-sponsored by Murphy, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, and three other lawmakers to rename the tags.
"Korean Conflict Veteran" will be replaced with "Korean War Veteran." The designation will appear in black letters on the left side of plates, available to veterans of the war at no extra cost. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 207,000 Korean War veterans are living in Florida.
The "conflict" designation, a sore spot for vets, arose after President Harry Truman termed the war "a police action" or "conflict." The phrase stuck and even now gets used — to the consternation of veterans groups.
"The war always has been given a lesser status, even when we came home from combat," said Thiel, 85, who served in the Army's 24th Infantry Division from 1951 to 1952.
After Thomas finished his service, from 1952 to 1954, he returned to Buffalo, N,Y. He married his wife, Helen, in 1956 and settled in Taylor, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, where he worked as a meat cutter. They retired to New Port Richey about 35 years ago.
Thomas said the "conflict" phrase never sat well with him nor the other Korean War vets at the VFW in Holiday where he's a regular.
In January, he turned to Murphy over the license plate issue.
Thiel was equally frustrated. A year earlier, he went to Metz but was told it was too late to get a bill introduced to change the tags. Metz resolved to follow up in the next legislative session.
"As a veteran myself and being familiar with the history of this, the lack of ticker tape parades, the lack of recognition, it just seemed to me to be a very valid issue for them," Metz said.
He filed his bill in January. Murphy, who was getting ready to propose a similar bill, saw that Metz had already filed one, so she asked to co-sponsor his bill.
Murphy and Metz said that when the tags were designed two years ago, the state had apparently relied on the old phrase "Korean Conflict" used by Congress.
The Florida statute that set up the military plate program echoed that phrase and, as a result, it was carried over to the veterans' plates when they debuted in October 2012.
"This was an all-out war — tanks, bombers, B-29s. It was no conflict," said Bob McGuire, president of the Florida chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association.
He sees the change in phrasing as a victory for veterans of the war. "Everybody is happy with it."
Capt. Nancy Rasmussen, deputy director of communication at the Florida Highway Patrol, said the existing "Korean Conflict" plates will be returned to the manufacturer to be melted down and used to make the new tags at no additional cost.
Apparently, they were never a hit with the Korean War vets. According to Rasmussen, only 131 "Korean Conflict" tags have been sold since they debuted.
The new tags will come out this summer.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.