By Gavin Menu
East Hampton resident Chris Carney put the Wounded Warrior Project in the national spotlight with his first Soldier Ride in 2004, when he cycled coast-to-coast to raise awareness for wounded veterans returning from war. Thanks in large part to the growth of Soldier Ride, which returns to the East End every July, the Wounded Warrior Project grew dramatically and announced recently it had provided resources to its 100,000th wounded veteran. A scandal erupted last year when The New York Times and CBS reported that the organization had spent lavishly on a company retreat. Those reports were debunked last month when the Better Business Bureau cleared the organization of lavish spending and gave the nonprofit its seal of approval.
Tell us about your work with the Wounded Warrior Project prior to the last 12 months. What was Solider Ride able to accomplish in terms of the overall effort?
Soldier Ride started in 2004 as a cross-country bike ride to raise money for a fledgling organization called the Wounded Warrior Project. The following year wounded soldiers joined in. I watched a kid with no legs cycle across the country and from there the ride grew organically into a powerful rehabilitative event. We have had hundreds of rides since then and thousands of soldiers have participated from several different states and even countries. Wounded Warrior Project grew from relying on a donation jar in front of the Talkhouse to a $400 million a year charity. As of fiscal year 2015, the legislation they have sponsored has paid out over $2 billion to warriors and their families. Wounded Warrior just served their 100,000th soldier and offers over 20 programs, Soldier Ride being just one of many. None of this would have happened without the initial and continued support from the community, and for that I am forever grateful.
Locally, you and others involved with Soldier Ride defended allegations that Wounded Warrior was somehow corrupt or spending lavishly. What facts did you have when the story first broke that made you question the report?
I had no facts when the story broke. It was devastating, like hearing a family member was involved in a horrific crime. We were notified by the former CEO of the impending CBS piece. He was skeptical of their intentions. Interviews of anyone speaking positively were cut short or not used. They relied heavily on disgruntled ex-employees who had been fired. In my opinion it was obvious they were determined to show Wounded Warrior in a bad light.
National news organizations, including The Washington Post, reported last month that Wounded Warrior had been cleared of the allegations and was awarded high ratings from both the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator. What have you learned since this news came out?
Forbes magazine writer Richard Levick wrote in his article “How To Kill A Charity, The Gutting of The Wounded Warrior Project” that whenever two media behemoths ‘break’ the same story, at the same exact time, it is likely the same source is feeding both. After the initial allegations in early 2016 we contacted one of the top attorneys in the country to confirm if the allegations had any merit. When a thorough investigation was completed, another founder and myself met in his New York City office along with former Columbia professor of philanthropic studies and author Doug White. The attorney’s team had an armful of pages of evidence contradicting almost every single allegation by CBS. It was amazing how much was either made up or wildly exaggerated. Doug White was beginning his own research and intends to write a book on the whole scandal. He has completed a detailed 80-page report. Anyone who wishes to learn more should read it. He addresses the allegations point by point. It was my opinion then that this was not mere incompetence, this was a deliberate attack. The recent exonerations of the CBS allegations of Wounded Warrior by major media outlets is a huge relief, but it took over a year and there was massive damage done. The false allegations were front page news across the country, the exonerations have been hardly covered with the same zest. Hopefully the public will have an interest in finding out how and why these organizations got so much wrong. That’s the story.
How did The New York Times and CBS reports affect the overall efforts of Wounded Warrior? How about Soldier Ride? Has there been any response by either news organization to these latest reports?
The CEO and COO, the two men responsible for growing WWP into the largest veterans advocacy organization in the country, were terminated. Corporate sponsorships were lost, staff was cut and programs were cancelled, one of which was a matching program with a bank that had created a long term trust that could have taken care of the catastrophically wounded for their lifetime. That’s gone and it is a tragedy. What we did not lose was support from this community, and ironically that is what got WWP started. I met with a bunch of fire department chiefs last spring to address the allegations and the only question I got from them was “What more can we do?” About 600 people rode alongside our wounded warriors through Sag Harbor in 2016’s Soldier Ride. I was so proud and thankful for the support that day, and I know the soldiers who participated were too. There has been no response from either CBS or The New York Times. Silence is the refuge of those with something to hide.
What do you hope to accomplish going forward with Soldier Ride, and how is Wounded Warrior looking to recover and rebuild its reputation?
It is important to know Wounded Warrior is still doing amazing work everyday. Locally, we are having our first Soldier Ride meeting for 2017 next week. Our volunteers have seen to much good achieved over the years. They are undaunted. As long as one wounded soldier makes the trip out here we will have a town ready to show support and love. As far as getting Wounded Warrior’s reputation back, I believe exposing those responsible for this in the court of public opinion is the best way to fully exonerate the Wounded Warrior Project. Hopefully people will want answers and pursue the truth. We know it is on our side.