Few things tug at American heartstrings, and rightly so, than severely wounded military veterans, particularly the young men and women from our most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Wounded Warrior Project charity began in the early 2000s when a Marine Corps veteran named, John Melia – who had been wounded in a helicopter crash in 1992 off the coast of Somalia – began visiting military hospitals, giving out backpacks filled with items such as socks, toothpaste and CD players, according to a Jan. 28 article in the New York Times.
In the years since, the charity has exploded in size and done much good along the way.
From its beginning with one man handing out backpacks, "today, the charity has 22 locations offering programs to help veterans readjust to society, attend school, find work and participate in athletics," according to the Times article. "It contributes millions to smaller veterans groups. And it has become a brand name, its logo emblazoned on sneakers, paper towel packs and television commercials that run dozens of times."
Indeed, few who watch television have not seen country music star Trace Adkins in moving commercials with wounded young veterans.
However, this same Times article raises some serious concerns about the charity, which took in "more than $372 million in 2015 – largely from small donations from people over 65," according to the Times.
According to the Times investigation, "about 40 percent of the organization's donations in 2014 were spent on its overhead," according to Charity Navigator. While other groups spend more on overhead, "it is far more than for many veterans charities, including the Semper Fi Fund, a wounded-veterans group that spent about 8 percent of donations on overhead."
Specific examples cited in the article are disturbing, Wounded Warrior "has spent millions a year on travel, dinners, hotels and conferences that often seemed more lavish than appropriate, more than four dozen current and former employees said in interviews. Former workers recounted buying business-class seats and regularly jetting around the country for minor meetings, or staying in $500-per-night hotel rooms."
Said Connie Chapman, an Iraq War veteran who headed the group's Seattle office for two years, "People could spend money on the most ridiculous thing and no one batted an eye."
To counter such criticism, Wounded Warrior has, according to the Times, "spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years on public relations and lobbying campaigns to deflect criticism of its spending and to fight legislative efforts to restrict how much nonprofits spend on overhead."
John Melia, who founded the Wounded Warrior Project, resigned from the group in 2009 and did not talk to the Times for its article. His ex-wife, however, told the Times that Mr. Melia felt the organization had been "stolen from him."
The Times article also raises significant questions about Wounded Warrior's treatment of employees and its use of data – what sound like quotas – to measure productivity. Employees – many of them veterans – faced termination when leaders felt they were a "bad cultural fit." Of course, employees don't work out in a specific setting for many reasons, but one gets the impression from the Times article that Wounded Warriors does not like employees to raise questions and quickly terminates those who do.
As for productivity, the impression is that quota for things like job placements for veterans and the number of veterans participating in social activities were inflated for the sake of producing increasingly impressive numbers of services provided.
"They would come up with numbers based on nothing," one former employee told the Times. "I would push back and they would get very frustrated and yell. By the time I left, we were just throwing guys in jobs to check off a box and hit the numbers."
Those concerned with the care of veterans – and we all should be – have been rightly concerned with the recent failings of the federal Veterans Administration. But the belief of some on the right that private endeavors are automatically superior to government is not true. The Wounded Warrior Project is a case in point.
We hope that citizens will start redirecting their contributions to other groups that help wounded veterans. This might send a message to Wounded Warrior that it needs to clean up its act.