Wounded Warrior’s Local Reps Fire Back at Charity’s Critics

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Riders prepare for Soldier Ride of the Hamptons in Sag Harbor in 2015.  Michael Heller
Riders prepare for Soldier Ride of the Hamptons in Sag Harbor in 2015.                                     Michael Heller

By Stephen J. Kotz

In the wake of two reports in the national media charging the Wounded Warrior Project with devoting abnormally large portions of the hundreds of millions of dollars it collects annually for disabled veterans to high salaries, expensive conferences and first-class travel arrangements for its employees, the organization’s local representatives have gone on the offensive.

“It’s completely fallacious. It’s a disgrace—the worse piece of journalism I’ve ever seen,” said Peter Honerkamp of a January 26 report by Chip Reid that appeared on CBS News and follow-up reporting that began the next day on CBS This Morning.

Just a day after the CBS report, Wounded Warrior was struck by another broadside when The New York Times on Thursday printed a lengthy page-one story by reporter Dave Philipps that covered much of the same ground.

Mr. Honerkamp is the managing partner of The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett and has been involved with the Wounded Warrior Project for more than 12 years through its more than 50 annual Soldier Ride fundraisers, which include events in Amagansett and Sag Harbor. He is paid $27,500 a year by the charity, although he said he donates $10,000 back to Wounded Warrior and other veterans’ causes.

Soldier Ride of the Hamptons, which has taken place annually since 2007, has raised at least $885,585, and perhaps as much as $1 million, according to Nick Kraus, a Talkhouse employee who also works part-time for Wounded Warrior.

The initial CBS report charged that Wounded Warrior only spends about 60 cents of every dollar it collects on programs directly benefiting veterans with much of the rest being spent on administrative and fundraising costs. Many other charities earmark 90 percent or more to programs, the report stated, citing figures from the website Charity Navigator, which tracks charity finances, and recently put Wounded Warrior on its watch list. The report also said the charity had spent some $26 million on conferences in 2014, up from $1.7 million in 2010 and had spent about $3 million alone on a conference for all 500 employees at an exclusive resort in Colorado Springs.

The report interviewed former employees, including Erick Millette, an Army veteran who had taken part in Wounded Warrior programs and a former fundraising speaker for the charity, who said he had grown disillusioned with the organization. “Donors don’t want you to have a $2,500 bar tab. Donors don’t want you to fly every staff member once a year to some five-star resort and whoop it up and call it team building,” said Mr. Millette in the CBS story.

“We’re going to dispute those figures, big time,” said Mr. Honerkamp, who insisted Wounded Warrior actually devotes about 80 percent of its donations to programming and charged Charity Navigator was publishing misleading information. Mr. Honerkamp also disputed claims the organization squandered money on travel and hotels, saying he has gone to support Soldier Ride in London annually and had never spent more than $200 a night for a hotel room. “If it’s higher, I pay the difference,” he said.

At the organization’s conferences, “it’s business only dawn to dusk—there’s no alcohol served,” he said. “Yeah, we stayed at a fancy resort once in Colorado, but we paid Best Western rates.”

The Wounded Warrior Project directed inquiries to Amber Allerd in its legal department, but she did not return calls. Mr. Philipps, of The Times, declined to comment for the story, and Mr. Reid of CBS could not be reached in time for this paper’s deadline.

Mr. Honerkamp first became involved with Wounded Warrior in 2004 when the Talkhouse sponsored a fundraiser for John Hernandez, of Ridge, an Army veteran who lost his legs in Iraq. Around the same time, East Hampton physical trainer Chris Carney undertook the inaugural Soldier Ride, a solo cross-country bicycle trip to raise money and awareness for the plight of wounded veterans.

Soldier Ride, which soon established a partnership with Wounded Warrior, is widely credited with raising the profile of that organization, from a small operation run by Marine veteran John Melia that donated backpacks full of toiletries and other comfort items to wounded soldiers in Veterans hospitals, and helped transform it into the mega-charity it is today.

“Soldier Ride Put Wounded Warrior on the map, and it changed the way veterans programs were run,” said Mr. Kraus, who said he is paid $36,000 per year and helps fundraise and organize Soldier Rides across the country and overseas. “We’re very proud of the fact that it started out here.”

Mr. Kraus also took umbrage with the reports, charging that both media sources interviewed people who offered glowing reports of the organization but chose not to include them in their coverage. “There’s a million great Wounded Warrior stories,” he said, adding that he had raised millions of dollars for the organization and had a positive impact on thousands of disabled veterans.

He said since Steve Nardizzi—who was paid $473,000 last year—had become the organization’s CEO in 2009, fundraising efforts had skyrocketed, making Wounded Warrior one of the largest charities in the country. “I guess the question is it better to spend 1 percent and raise $1 million or spend 18 percent and raise $400 million?”

He questioned why CBS did not interview Richard M. Jones, a Wounded Warrior board member, who also happens to be one of the network’s executive vice presidents and who serves as its general tax counsel.

Chris Carney, who undertook the first Soldier Ride, is no longer actively involved in the organization, but he too questioned the tone of the reports, while acknowledging that Soldier Ride had lost some of its grassroots appeal. “I’m saddened by it, but it’s not like it’s completely out of left field,” he said, noting that as the Wounded Warrior Project has grown, complaints about it have too, with some saying the organization has become too bureaucratic. “People say their calls aren’t returned or that they can’t get permission for a sponsorship agreement,” he said.

“When we started, it was on a wing and prayer and none of us knew how big it would get,” he said. He said the first ride initially raised about $150,000, but thanks to “the media splash after that ride,” it was soon up over a million dollars and snowballed really fast.”

“I know that Wounded Warrior Project is always fighting against the bad rumor tide,” said JoAnn Lyles in an email. Ms. Lyles has been involved with Soldier Ride locally since the death of her son, Lance Cpl. Jordan C. Haerter, in Iraq in 2008.

Ms. Lyles said she could not speak for the national organization, but “on our local level, we have many, many volunteers who put in countless hours of their own time, starting in January, [doing] unpaid and many times, thankless jobs.”

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