In they flew to Colorado Springs, 500 strong. In they flew in business class seats on their respective flights, and upon landing headed from the airport to their ultimate destination, the historic and ultra-exclusive Broadmoor Hotel, a five-diamond resort with million-dollar mountain views, a trio of 18-hole golf courses, a world-class spa, and both indoor and outdoor swimming pools among the long and lavish list of luxury amenities.
Their three-day sojourn was a “team building” exercise, a morale booster for the troops, a chance to be feted and pampered for all their hard work in building and operating a fabulously successful and wealthy enterprise, and to kick off the festivities the organization’s CEO appeared spotlighted at the top of the hotel’s imposing 10-story bell tower. He proceeded to rappel down the face of the edifice. It was one hell of an entrance.
Now let’s take a little quiz. What organization was assembled there that day and who was the CEO that spidered down the tower? Was it A) Google/Sergei Brin, B) Oracle/Larry Ellison, C) Virgin Group/Sir Richard Branson, D) Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg, or E) None of the above.
If you answered E you nailed it, but the actual correct answer might make you as ill as it made me: The Wounded Warrior Project/Steven Nardizzi.
Not bad for a “charity.”
It’s been one hell of a party for the last few years with over 24 million donor dollars being spent in 2014 alone on just such exercises in excess benefiting the bosses and staff of the WWP instead of being directed towards programs for wounded vets. But now the party’s coming to an end as the money machine Nardizzi constructed scurries to save face—and donors—caught like an earwig in the harsh light of detailed and damning exposés by both CBS News and The New York Times, and the upshot came in the first week of March when the WWP board of directors finally sat up and took notice of the obscene squandering of donor dollars. Both Nardizzi and his buddy and chief operating officer, Al Giordano, were given the axe, losing their positions that paid the pair of them almost a million dollars in combined annual salary.
By that time, the WWP had already been put on the Charity Navigator watch list for dubious practices, and were de-listed from the roster of effective and transparent charities by the reputable San Diego veterans’ charity watchdog, the Patriots Initiative, for their practices and fund allocations.
But well before that, red flags were already going up about the organization’s priorities as they devoted large sums of donor dollars to lawyers, threatening and litigating against any individuals critical of the organization as well as smaller veterans charity that had the temerity to use the words “wounded warrior” in their name or had a silhouette logo in the style of the WWP’s “He ain’t heavy” graphic (a shameless evocation of the iconic Boy’s Town appeal if you ask me), never mind that some of these targeted do-gooders pre-dated the WWP, and devoted dramatically more of their resources to actually assisting injured veterans in need.
Where this strikes home for me, and us, is the involvement of both Harley-Davidson and Polaris in promoting the dubious enterprise, including donating money, bikes, ATVs, and copious high-profile exposure and entreaties for support, crowned, perhaps, by the last Love Ride in November that chose the WWP as their sole beneficiary of the event. As of this writing, you can still go to the Harley-Davidson website and donate to the scandalized cause.
It wasn’t always thus. The Wounded Warrior Project started humbly enough in the basement of founder John Melia, a Marine severely wounded in Somalia in 1992 when the helicopter he was riding in crashed. His return stateside with little more than the hospital gown he wore, and his ensuing work with the veteran assistance agencies including the highly-regarded Disable American Veterans Charitable Foundation (another partner of Harley-Davidson and the organization best known for bringing their mobile service offices to H-D dealerships nationally. Their CEO works without pay and the charity devotes about 97 percent of their raised funds directly to service programs—a significantly bigger cut than the WWP’s 60 percent.)
Seeing a need for simpler amenities and recalling his practically naked return to the U.S. years earlier, he began a new enterprise operating out of his basement, filling small backpacks with practical items: T-shirts, shorts, underwear and socks as well as hygiene products and simple entertainment like CDs and CD players. He delivered them personally to Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Hospital. The reception was ecstatic and the desire and need for additional Wounded Warrior Backpacks manifested, and thus began what would become the largest and fastest-growing veterans’ charity in the country. The real growth spurt occurred, however, starting about 2009, the year when Mr. Melia found himself muscled out of power by the rappelling CEO Steven Nardizzzi, an attorney with no military service to his record. He thereupon shifted the organization’s focus heavily towards fundraising, and he was a real rainmaker and the outfit has pulled in about a billion dollars in the years since. (Remarkably, they actually still assemble those humble backpacks.)
As the WWP attempts now to pick up the pieces and salvage what remains of their reputation, one promising note has emerged: John Melia, the man who started it all back in 2003, has come forth and expressed his interest in returning to the reins of the charity. Obviously it’s not the whole solution to an embedded culture of cynical greed, but it’s an auspicious start.