Wounded Warrior project faces scrutiny

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via Moak: Wounded Warrior project faces scrutiny, clarionledger.com, 2/10/2013

PDF: WWP

It started with a great idea. A wounded veteran named John Melia, who had been seriously injured in a helicopter crash during military operations in Somalia in the early 1990s, wanted to do something to help his fellow veterans who had suffered injuries during their service. In 2003, Melia and some friends began collecting simple items such as toiletries, socks and playing cards and stuffing them into backpacks. The group (which soon became known as the Wounded Warrior Project) distributed the backpacks to veterans at VA hospitals, helping provide much-needed help to people who had risked life and limb for our country.

As the fledgling organization began to grow, it found itself meeting a crucial need during protracted military operations in the Middle East, and the money began pouring in. Americans rallied, because most Americans consider supporting veterans to be a patriotic duty. The organization adopted the slogan, “The greatest casualty is being forgotten” and received endorsements from high-profile celebrities such as Trace Adkins and Gary Sinise. According to Charity Navigator, the organization raised more than $342 million in 2014. Programs have expanded to include helping veterans reintegrate into society and find work.

But recently, the organization has come under fire for what some have called lavish spending. WWP has reportedly hosted pricey fundraisers and company meetings and has been accused of spending only six of every 10 donated dollars on programs that actually help veterans. As the New York Times and CBS News broke stories about alleged misuse of donated money, other media jumped in, and whistleblowers began coming out of the woodwork, alleging various questionable practices and a corporate culture that discouraged employees from asking too many questions.

Initially, the WWP appeared defiant, demanding a retraction from CBS in a fiery letter refuting the charges. But then the organization’s board of directors promised a full accounting of WWP’s finances and governance. “The Board takes very seriously the concerns that have been raised in recent days and is in the process of retaining independent advisors to conduct a thorough financial and policy review of the concerns,” the letter noted. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to our warriors and supporters and will ensure that the organization is effectively fulfilling this important mission.”

Any nonprofit  that receives public donations to carry out its work is expected to be accountable for how that money is spent. The public demands that. Many charity rating watchdogs, such as the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator, use a broad-based approach to rating a charity and consider factors such as how the organization is led and governed, their commitment to transparency, their focus on the mission, how much money is actually spent on the cause to which they’re committed, how well they treat their donors and other factors. There is much more to assessing a charity than just a number, but that number (called the overhead ratio) is often given more weight that it should be in the minds of donors. Most donors understand a charity has to keep its lights on, its employees paid and to take care of the many “overhead” costs involved in providing help. As a general rule, though, donors also expect their dollars will go toward helping a group of people, rather than lining the pockets of highly paid staff, consultants and fundraisers.

With all the news breaking about this one organization, it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon of condemnation. Many have begun to get nervous about sending their money to this or other large organizations. It’s important to note such condemnationmay be deserved, but all the facts aren’t in yet.

In this column, we have always tried to encourage people to give, but give wisely. If you’re sending in your donation to any organization, they should do everything in their power to give the maximum they can to help the people and causes they’re committed to helping. That means balancing their support of the “cause” with the need to provide that support in a responsible and ethical way. Never should they lose sight of the understanding they are stewards of a valuable commodity — not money, but trust. Once that’s been lost, it’s gone forever. WWP’s response to this crisis will have a lot to do with whether it survives, or just becomes another cautionary tale in the history of American charity work.

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Debt can hamstring your military career

We hear a lot about how much power credit bureaus and credit scores can have over the lives of ordinary people. Getting behind on your bills can negatively in many ways, not the least of which can affect your prospects for getting hired or getting a promotion.

And if you’re in the military, the effects of debt – and shady collection-agency tactics — can harm your career as well. In an article she wrote recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)’s Holly Petraeus noted that some collection agencies are threatening servicemembers’ careers. While many of the questionable tactics involve threatening to take actions which the collection agency doesn’t have the power to carry out, negative information can affect your career and your security clearance.

Since the CFPB began accepting debt-collection complaints from service members 18 months ago, Petraeus writes, more than 11,000 complaints have been received. It’s the fastest-growing category of complaints.” Among other things,” Petraeus notes, “we’ve received reports that some debt collectors are threatening servicemembers by claiming that they will report the unpaid debt to their commanding officer, have the servicemember busted in rank or even have their security clearance revoked if they don’t pay up.”

These threats are largely just that; in most cases, these are tactics designed to threaten you into paying. However, although debt collectors don’t necessarily have the ability to contact the servicemember’s security manager, nor do they have the authority to influence the security manager’s decision, negative information can affect your security clearance during a review.

To help mitigate the effects of potentially harming your security clearance, Petraeus recommends you do the following:

  • Do your best to show that your financial problems resulted from circumstances beyond your control (not a pattern of irresponsible behavior) and that you acted as responsibly as you could under the circumstances. This may include showing that you’re currently living within your means, that you’re making a good-faith effort to resolve your unpaid debts, and that you’re disputing debts that aren’t yours.
  • When a financial problem arises, speak with your installation’s Personal Financial Manager (PFM) and/or JAG office to get free, expert advice and assistance. Be sure to keep documentation of all your commitments, efforts to resolve delinquencies, and any disputes about debts – it could be helpful to you later.
  • If you do receive notice that your security clearance eligibility is being denied or revoked, Department of Defense regulations give you the right to a hearing before an Administrative Judge of the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA). This hearing is your opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with an official, independent of your chain of command, to explain your situation and the steps you’ve taken to address the issues identified in a written Statement of Reasons (SOR).
  • Be alert to the deadlines in the SOR process, seek expert assistance, ask for the opportunity to appear personally before a DOHA Administrative Judge, and bring whatever documentation and character witnesses you can. A written transcript of your testimony and the testimony of any witnesses whom you bring to the hearing will be provided to you free of charge. That transcript, along with copies of any documents you submit (such as canceled checks, receipts, bank statements, tax returns, settlement agreements, character recommendations, etc.), and the Administrative Judge’s recommendations will become a significant part of the record that is forwarded to the officials deciding your security clearance eligibility.

“Managing your debts, expenses, income and other personal finance matters is more than just a tactic to guard your security clearance,” Petraeus writes. “It’s also a day-to-day exercise that can help lead you and your family to financial security. If you need help planning, hit a bump or need assistance with a problem you can’t fix along the way, there are a number of resources available to you.”

Veterans cautioned to choose colleges carefully

If you have served in the military and are going to college, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities for assistance out there, and your service to the nation (thank you, by the way!) can help you pay for much of the cost of attending college. The bad news is that there are a lot of folks looking to gain access to that money.

Schemes targeting veterans have proliferated since 9-11, consisting of everything from predatory businesses setting up shop outside the gates of military bases to scams trying to take advantage of the families of deployed service members. On the radar of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other watchdogs are some for-profit schools that are trying to get access to the lucrative GI Bill money that comes with veterans. A report in July 2012 from the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions reported that for-profit colleges receive 37 percent of post 9-11 G.I. Bill benefits, and 50 percent of Department of Defense Tuition funds. These funds amounted to 86 percent of the revenues of the 15 publicly-traded for-profit education companies.

Here in Mississippi, for-profit schools have a long history. For many years, they quietly helped fill the need for technical and vocational education. But in the past few years, their numbers have mushroomed, as companies realized the profit potential that comes with financial aid and a workforce in need of retooling. That growth has brought concerns about a variety of potential problems.

In a news release recently, the FTC listed eight questions you should ask when considering a college after serving in the military.

“We want to help students evaluate their options and spend their education dollars wisely,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Knowing the right questions to ask can help students and their family members avoid some unnecessary pitfalls as they pick the program that’s right for them.”

According to the FTC, some for-profit schools may “stretch the truth to encourage enrollment, either by exerting pressure on service members to sign up for unnecessary courses or to take out loans that might be a challenge to pay off.”

When looking at educational opportunities, the FTC said students should find out the total cost of attending a school, and plan for expenses that may not be covered by their veterans’ benefits. Of the recent graduates who borrowed money to attend the school, what percentage is delinquent in paying back those loans? Students should specifically ask about how the education and training can lead to job opportunities after graduation, and ask the school to support what it says in writing. Will a degree from this school get the student where they want to go? What percentage of students graduate?

Students also should ask if the school is committed to helping veterans. If so, how? What campus support is available specifically for veterans for academic, career, housing, and medical? Can they get credit for their military training?

It’s good advice. If you’re a veteran, your hard-won service record can and should be your ticket to help you start or re-start your career. Consider all the options. Mississippi has an excellent system of public and private 2-year and 4-year colleges, increasingly focusing on developing the state’s workforce. Regardless of their structure, higher education institutions must do their part to ensure they honor that service by providing programs that a relevant, valuable and accountable. Our veterans deserve no less.