KDKA Investigates: Local Wounded Warrior Project’s Effectiveness Questioned

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Brandon Rumbaugh lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan trying to rescue another marine.

“I didn’t think I was going to make, from the  amount of blood I had lost.”

He knows that the road of recovery is long, and that he and vets like him have depended on the the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and supportive organizations for help along the way.

Yet, Rumbaugh was disappointed to learn of recent revelations about the Wounded Warrior Project.

“Sometimes things get away from you when you become so popular, so big, and you forget about what the main goal is and that’s to serve veterans,” he said.

A CBS News investigation found that the Jacksonville, Florida-based charity has spent lavishly on conferences, meetings and parties. The investigation determined that Wounded Warrior spent less than 60 percent of its donations on vet programs.

While Wounded Warrior puts the figure at 80 percent, CBS found much of that is advertising, postage and promotional items which Rumbaugh says he receives in the mail.

“I don’t need 13 of the same blankets, or a dozen of the same hats or all these stickers  from the Wounded Warrior Project, it’s almost like they don’t know how much money they’re wasting,” he said.

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Three years ago, Wounded Warrior opened up a Pittsburgh office, and like the broader national organization, it has drawn criticism of local vets and organizations for waste and ineffective spending. Starting with their offices, Wounded Warrior leases space in the Oxford Tower, which is Class A: the most expensive office space in the region.

Marlon Ferguson: It’s kind of like being in the ivory tower.

Sheehan: Ivory tower.

Marlon Ferguson: And the vets that they serve are not ivory tower types of people. They’re blue collar, hard-working who went into the military because they believed in something bigger  than themselves.

Here in Pittsburgh, Wounded Warrior is best known for sponsoring events like the Soldiers’ Ride, where vets come together in an outdoor bonding experience. They’ve also sponsored clay pigeon shoots, golf outings and given vets free tickets to Penguins and Pirates games.

But Marlon Ferguson of The Veterans Place in East Liberty said these kinds of activities don’t address the central needs of housing, employment and emotional counseling.

“It’s difficult to go to a baseball game when you don’t have a place to stay afterwards, or your fundamental needs aren’t being met. So for us, that’s part of the program but we’re here to address those core needs,” he said.

Veterans Place gives vets a home for up to two years, along with job training and counseling. But Ferguson says vets tell him they aren’t getting this kind of help when they go to Wounded Warrior.

“They’re dealing with PTSD, alcoholism, depression, homelessness and they come to us needing help and to be turned down or pushed in a different direction that just adds to their frustrations,” he explained

The Pittsburgh office said in addition to group outings, their Warriors to Work and benefits programs have helped hundreds of local vets find jobs and get the assistance they need from the VA.

Afghanistan-Iraq war vet James Martin said the Independence Program helped him transition back and develop a long-term plan of self-sufficiency.

“I might not be here,” Martin said. “You’d be writing about me, Staff Sergeant James Martin fell to his demons. But I’m here.”

“We work for long-term effort. Our mission here at the Wounded Warrior Project is to empower warriors for a lifetime,” Said Lyndsay Tkach of the Wounded Warrior Project.

But stung by recent criticism, Wounded Warrior has cleaned house at the national level and vowed to refocus its efforts. Vets like Rumbaugh are starting to detect a change and hopes organization devotes its resources to its more effective programs.

“Hopefully they get moving in the right direction again and keep going down the path and focus on the veterans and their families.”

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