Nearly four years ago I volunteered for an event that was sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project where I waved an American flag and cheered on veterans who were taking part in the Soldier Ride from Rose Haven, Maryland all the way to the White House in Washington, DC. I was there cheering for only the first leg of the trip in Rose Haven but I took some photos of the veterans trying with all their might to make the long journey to DC, such as this one.

Soldier Ride, Rose Haven, Maryland

I found it so inspiring to see veterans who have been struggling with physical and mental disabilities from seeing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan showing determination to go on that journey. It also put things into perspective for me because just four months earlier my husband abruptly walked out on me while claiming that it was my behavior that drove him away from home. He did this despite the fact that I was still recovering from hip surgery that I had undergone just three months earlier. (I later found out that he left me for a friend of ours who has been struggling with severe mental health issues for most of her adult life. They were married just two months after our divorce was final.)

I also felt that it was so fortunate that a charity like the Wounded Warrior Project was there to help these veterans, especially since there have long been budget cuts to the Veterans Administration so that government agency couldn’t do as much for these vets as they would’ve otherwise. I was so impressed by that organization that I found myself wishing that money wasn’t so tight because I would’ve made regular donations to that organization. (Which was why I decided that I would contribute by volunteering for that event instead of giving money.)

Now my admiration for the Wounded Warrior Project has been shattered thanks to this recent expose that’s going around the media. Here is what this New York Times article had to say about this organization.

But in its swift rise, it has also embraced aggressive styles of fund-raising, marketing and personnel management that have many current and former employees questioning whether it has drifted from its mission.

It 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.

The organization has also 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.

About 40 percent of the organization’s donations in 2014 were spent on its overhead, or about $124 million, according to the charity-rating group Charity Navigator. While that percentage, which includes administrative expenses and marketing costs, is not as much as for some groups, 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. As a result, some philanthropic watchdog groups have criticized the Wounded Warrior Project for spending too heavily on itself.

Some of its own employees have criticized it, too. William Chick, a former supervisor, spent five years with the Wounded Warrior Project. “It slowly had less focus on veterans and more on raising money and protecting the organization,” he said.

Mr. Chick, who was fired in 2012 after a dispute with his supervisor, said he saw the Wounded Warrior Project help hundreds of veterans. But like other former employees, he said the group swiftly fired anyone leaders considered a “bad cultural fit.”

Eighteen former employees — many of them wounded veterans themselves — said they had been fired for seemingly minor missteps or perceived insubordination. At least half a dozen former employees said they were let go after raising questions about ineffective programs or spending.

The sad part is that the organization was originally formed with the best of intentions.

The Wounded Warrior Project’s roots are more humble. Its founder, John Melia, was a Marine veteran who had been injured in a helicopter crash off the coast of Somalia in 1992. When wounded troops began returning from Iraq in 2003, Mr. Melia remembered how he had arrived in a stateside hospital with only his thin hospital gown, and began visiting military hospitals to distribute backpacks stuffed with socks, CD players, toothpaste and other items.

As the backpack project grew, Mr. Melia hired a few employees, including Mr. Nardizzi, a lawyer who had never served in the military but was an executive for a small nonprofit, the United Spinal Association, which served disabled veterans.

They began raising millions of dollars and broadening their services to include adaptive sports for disabled veterans, employment and benefits help, and retreats to teach veterans to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

By 2009, the group had grown to about 50 employees and $21 million in revenue. But by then, Mr. Melia and Mr. Nardizzi were fighting over the charity’s future, with Mr. Nardizzi pushing for more aggressive expansion than Mr. Melia, former employees said.

In January 2009, Mr. Melia resigned.

Mr. Nardizzi said in an interview that Mr. Melia left to pursue business ventures. But Mr. Melia’s ex-wife, Julie Melia, who worked at the charity at the time, said in an interview that her former husband felt like the organization was “stolen from him.”

“He didn’t want to leave, but it was obvious something was going to happen,” Ms. Melia said.

The organization paid Mr. Melia at least $230,000 after he stepped down, according to tax forms. He has never spoken publicly about his disagreements with Mr. Nardizzi, and declined to be interviewed.

Today, on a list of 27 founders that was created by the charity’s current leadership and handed out to all new employees, Mr. Melia’s name appears well below the name of the charity’s for-profit fund-raising consultant.

I should’ve known that something was fishy about that group. When I went to a volunteer orientation it was in these really swanky offices located in downtown DC. (In contrast, the office for my support group for people who are separated or divorced is located in the basement of a small building that’s located on the grounds of a Presbyterian church. While the office is small and cozy, it’s definitely not very lavish. Ditto for the offices of my Unitarian Universalist congregation.) I also should’ve known about the ineffective programs as well. At the time I volunteered, I did it by using this online software that was pretty easy to sign up with. After I took part in the 2012 Soldier Ride there was either a revamping of the website or they switched software or something like it because I had a harder time signing up for volunteer events after that. Over time I simply forgot about the Wounded Warrior Project and just moved on to other things.

It’s too bad that this organization is caught up in this embarrassing media expose. Had the group kept its spending under control it could’ve sponsored more events that would’ve helped more veterans. Too bad, so sad.

UPDATE (January 29, 2016): Thom Hartmann made this thought provoking editorial on why private non-profit charitable organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project shouldn’t even exist.

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