For Lieutenant General Michael Linnington, the blazing heat of Saturday’s “Soldier Ride”—over 24 miles of blacktop from Amagansett to Sag Harbor and back—was only the latest feet-to-the-fire test he’s had to endure since taking over one of the nation’s largest military veterans organizations, the Wounded Warrior Project, three years ago.
Having assumed command of the organization in the wake of a spending scandal that kneecapped its once-meteoric fundraising success, Lt. Gen. Linnington had to hit the ground at the clip of an infantry soldier charging into a firefight.
Today, the retired U.S. Army general, who commanded a combat brigade of the 101st Airborne Division during the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, says that the Wounded Warrior Project has closed the accounting and recording gaps that allowed the claims in the spending scandal, now largely debunked, to gain traction. At the same time, the organization has more than doubled the number of disabled veterans and their family members for whom it provides a once-again-broadening network of support.
The group is also expanding the number and size of Soldier Rides, the fitness challenge for wounded veterans that began in Amagansett in 2003 and has become the group’s highest-profile public event, and one of its best avenues to connecting struggling veterans with its support networks.
With a budget this year of some $205 million, the Wounded Warrior Project remains the largest veterans services organization founded since the wars that broke out after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Wounded Warrior Project now has some 167,000 “alumni,” as it calls the veterans and their families who are linked to its broad variety of programs. That’s more than double the number in 2015, despite $100 million less in annual contributions—and it is growing by 1,500 veterans a month.
The number of American soldiers in theaters of combat has dwindled since 2012, but Lt. Gen. Linnington says that it often takes many years for young soldiers to come to grips with the fact that they may need help from others to deal with the lingering effects of their overseas combat tours, so new veterans are still streaming into the Wounded Warrior Project’s programs.
The group hosts 5,000 events around the country each year, mostly designed to draw in individual veterans who may otherwise be reluctant to seek out help on their own.
With suicides, depression and physical deterioration plaguing hundreds of thousands of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Wounded Warrior Project’s main focus on improving both mental and physical well-being in a population of veterans prone to mountainous challenges to both in the aftermath of their military service is a critical bridge to the herculean tasks the Veterans Administration has in providing support to veterans.
“Our main focus is mental health and wellness … as treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury,” Lt. Gen. Linnington said. “We do a variety of programs, from physical fitness and mobility coaching … to resume writing.”
The Wounded Warrior Project’s signature support network, its Independence Program, helps severely injured veterans secure the resources needed to receive adequate care in their homes, rather than through extended stays at VA institutions.
Last weekend’s latest installment of Soldier Ride in Amagansett brought 280 riders out into Saturday’s searing heat, and hundreds more at two gatherings in Sag Harbor and Amagansett to shower them with applause.
Soldier Ride and the Wounded Warrior Project have grown in unison since Chris Carney took his first solo coast-to-coast ride to raise money and awareness for wounded American soldiers. The events conjured by Mr. Carney and co-workers Nick Kraus and Peter Honerkamp in the bar of the Stephen Talkhouse nearly two decades ago have now become a nationwide series, with 45 separate events mustered each year by three teams of Wounded Warrior Project organizers throughout the country.
Lt. Gen. Linnington says the Soldier Ride events have become some of the best exposure for the organization and are often the doorway for the group to reach struggling veterans who are in need of support—a springboard to self-confidence and the realization that there is a network of their peers out there to help them.
“Soldier Ride empowers wounded veterans to re-energize and adapt to live active and healthy lifestyles,” the general says. “We had some guys really struggling on the rides this week. It’s hot, they’re heavy, they’re over-medicated. But it opens their eyes to the need for them to continue working on their fitness. And that’s what we’re here to emphasize: You’re not in it alone—we’re here to help you on your journey.”
The New York ride is the organization’s most high-profile event, Lt. Gen. Linnington says. This year’s three-part event started at Fox News Studios on Thursday, July 18, with a ride through Manhattan and a stop at the corporate offices of the National Football League—one of the organization’s largest financial supporters—where NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with the veterans and several former NFL players joined the riders.
On Friday, the veterans mounted up in Babylon, where more than 1,200 community members joined in on the ride with 50 veterans.
The parade took its last loop under a scorching sun on Saturday, with a ride from Amagansett to Sag Harbor and back, with stops for a barbecue—with the veterans concluding a sweaty day with a cooling swim in the ocean off Amagansett.
Lt. Gen. Linnington, who took up cycling barely a year ago and now rides 100 miles a week to stay in shape for Soldier Ride events, says that the once again growing financial support for the Wounded Warrior Project is surpassed only by the growing needs of America’s veterans.
“The need is great and continues to grow,” he said. “And as the need grows, our ability to keep up demands that we keep growing as well.”