Veterans’ Needs, Charitable Dangers

January 5th, 2013

By Richard C. Morais | Barron's | barrons.com | Jan 5, 2012

Military personnel are committing suicide at a rate greater than they are dying in battle. In 2011, there were 283 confirmed Army, Reserve, and National Guard suicides, according to the Defense Department. Last year, it appears, the tolling bells rang an even sadder result. In the first 11 months of 2012, there were 303 "potential" suicides among the same group, with 210 so far confirmed by investigators. In contrast, the Stars and Stripes military newspaper reports that, as of Dec. 7, 212 soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan last year.

So here's my call as we start 2013: Please dig deep into your pockets for the men and women in our armed forces. Giving fatigue at this time of year is real, but let's be blunt -- it's not as real or deadly as battle fatigue. The needs of our warrior class are great.

Consider Air Force pilot Layne Hill, who had a catastrophic reaction to the anthrax vaccine. Unable to walk anymore, this man with a devoted wife and three children spends a lot of his life shuttling from doctors' appointments to medical tests. When the Hill kids do an activity, their wheelchair-bound father usually stays at home; mom takes them.

Claire Wiley/National Ability Center
An injured American vet, backed by the Wounded Warrior Project, scales a wall at the National Ability Center.
Last summer, however, the Wounded Warrior Project sent the Hills to the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, a camp rigged with specialized equipment and services. Hill suddenly found himself riding a specially engineered bike, alongside his young son. The nonprofit camp helps veterans' families focus on themselves and a little play, rather than on the warrior's disability and its daily grind. "Having that recreation just kind of helps you recharge your batteries and reset your clock, so you can engage in the challenges still before you," says Hill.

The Utah camp, excluding transportation, costs $100 to $175 per person per day; the participating charities pick up all the costs, providing veterans and their families with a crucial morale boost. The center's executive director, Gail Loveland, says she wants to serve more of the growing disabled vet population, but it's hard, from her location, to get word out nationally that families and charitable partners are welcome.

Here's something else you should know: Nonprofits devoted to assisting war veterans are also a big attraction to crooks. CharityWatch is a nonprofit watchdog and information service. In its December report, CharityWatch's president, Daniel Borochoff, ran down the latest scams ensnaring those wanting to help veterans, including crowd funding pitches on Craigslist and Indiegogo for maimed warriors who don't actually exist, and skuzzy look-alike charities that divert funds away from the real thing.

Last April, U.S. marshals arrested John Donald Cody, a former military intelligence officer who had been on the FBI's wanted list for decades. After stealing another man's identity, Cody ran a sham charity for eight years called the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. Cody allegedly used this to bilk the public of nearly $100 million.

And some veterans' charities, while not fraudulent, are badly run, aided by the squishy nature of nonprofit accounting. Fund-raising pitches with a bit of "advice" embedded can, for example, be booked as "educational program" expenses. One charity that Borochoff reviewed disguised its fund-raising costs by including a few tips on "proper wheelchair etiquette" in its solicitations.

Don't rely solely on the Charity Navigator or Guidestar databases to make a gift, but perform your own due diligence. CharityWatch analyzes charities that are heavily into soliciting. There are 10 large veterans' charities out of 45 that CharityWatch rates as excellent, including the A-plus-scored Fisher House Foundation and the Semper Fi/Injured Marine Semper Fi funds. Conversely, the Wounded Warrior Project that so helped the Hill family earned a D from CharityWatch, after picking up three out of four stars at Charity Navigator. Borochoff says he focuses on how wisely cash is spent. Not surprisingly, Steven Nardizzi, a WWP founder, argues that Borochoff makes his financial calls behind closed doors. WWP follows the Better Business Bureau rating system, which, Nardizzi says, assesses the outcomes of programs.

Yes, well, you get the idea. Give generously to veterans groups, but also give smartly and do your homework.

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