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. Air Force pilot Layne Hill 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 this doctor’s appointment to that medical test. When the Hill kids do an activity, their wheelchair-bound father usually stays at home; mom takes them.
Last summer, however, the Wounded Warrior Project sent the Hill family to the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. The camp is rigged with all sorts of specialized equipment and services that opens up an entire new world for families struggling with the dark aftermath of serving their country.
Former pilot Layne Hill suddenly found himself riding an especially designed bike alongside his son, a simple family outing most of us take for granted. The experience was, according to Hill’s son, “awesome.”
The National Ability Center is dedicated to helping families focus on themselves and a little play, rather than on the daily grind of the stricken warrior’s disability. How important this is cannot be overstated. “Having that recreation just kind of helps you recharge your batteries and reset your clock so you can engage in the challenges that are still before you,” says Hill.
The Utah camp, excluding transportation costs, costs $100 to $175 per person per day; the participating charities pick up all the costs, providing veterans and their families 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 the word out nationally that families and charitable partners are welcome.
Here is something else you need to know: Nonprofits devoted to assisting war veterans are also a big attraction to crooks. CharityWatch is a nonprofit watchdog and information service helping folks “maximize the effectiveness of every dollar contributed to charity.”
In its December report, CharityWatch’s president Daniel Borochoff ran down the latest scams ensnaring those wanting to help veterans, including crowdfunding pitches on Craigslist and Indiegogo for maimed warriors who don’t actually exist, and scuzzy look-alike charities that divert funds away from the real thing.
Last April, U.S. marshals finally arrested John Donald Cody, a former military intelligence officer wanted by the FBI 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 the charity to bilk the public of nearly $100 million, while gaining access to top lawmakers in D.C.
Of course, some veterans’ charities are not fraudulent, just 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 Borochoff reviewed disguised its fund-raising costs by including a few tips on “proper wheelchair etiquette” in its solicitations, thereby producing a “program” of dubious merit.
So don’t rely solely on Charity Navigator or Guidestar databases to make a gift, but perform your own due diligence. CharityWatch analyzes charities heavily into soliciting, and 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 over 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 smart and do your homework.
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