JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In 10 years, the Wounded Warrior Project went from non-existent to the 38th largest charity in the United States, bringing in $312 million in donations in 2014 alone.
It's a brand that has proven to be very valuable. But exactly how is the power of the Wounded Warrior brand being used?
News4Jax spoke with seven sources and only one agreed to reveal his identity for fear the charity's legal team would strike back.
“Warriors that were employees have been fired by Wounded Warrior Project,” said Carol, a woman who used to work at WWP and does not want to reveal her identity.
News4Jax sources said many of those warriors who were terminated had post-traumatic stress disorder, the same invisible wounds the charity says it strives to help warriors heal. Sources say people have been too afraid to come forward and tell the public, until now.
“Dare you say anything, you don't say anything,” said Carol. “They would ruin me. They would come after me somehow, someway.”
What's more, News4Jax found two lawsuits filed in Duval County by WWP against fellow injured veterans formerly employed by the non-profit. Both of those veterans declined to talk to News4Jax.
Sources said however, both wounded veterans, named in the lawsuits had PTSD and that's part of why they were fired from the charity. Both lawsuits only show WWP’s side, claiming the injured veterans violated their severance agreements.
Documents show one disabled veteran and a woman, was sued because WWP found a copy of her severance agreement in the hands of an Indiana charity - also being sued by WWP.
The second injured veteran, a man, is being sued because a donor rescinded his $2,400 donation to WWP after finding out that warrior had been fired.
In that second lawsuit, WWP demanded more than $52,000 from him - his $50,000 severance plus damages and attorney fees.
Court records show both lawsuits are still open.
What's more, when News4Jax asked the non-profit how many former employees it had sued, it answered "one."
When asked how many warriors they had sued, the answer was "zero."
“Them suing fellow wounded warriors honestly, I think is a travesty,” said a man speaking on behalf of an anonymous veterans’ service organization. “I know of several wounded warriors that have personally had several encounters with the project and had nothing nice to say about them.”
That man is with one of two veterans service non-profits News4Jax spoke with who said they were also threatened with lawsuits by WWP. Both would only speak over the phone providing their identities would be protected.
“We all know there is an 800-pound gorilla, one that will sue you if you do anything that bothers them and two; one that will gobble up all the money if we don't have some opportunity to get our voice out there also,” said a source from the anonymous non-profit.
“Just because they are the Wounded Warrior Project doesn't make them not a bully. Look at all the organizations they are going after, look at organizations they are threatening? Who does that? Bullies. It dumbfounds me,” said the other source.
A check of most recent financials, for fiscal year 2014, shows the charity spent $1.4 million on legal services. WWP’s management declined an on-camera interview with News4Jax after repeated requests. A spokesman said they were “too busy.”
News4Jax did get this statement however, about suing other veterans’ service organizations.
"Unfortunately, in rare instances we have had to file lawsuits against other organizations. In one of the cases the organization was stealing money, cashing checks intended for Wounded Warrior Project. We partner and fund more than 100 organizations that provide services for veterans across the country."
An online search showed a Nebraska-based charity had to give $1.7 million to WWP for having the term “wounded warrior” in their name, even though that charity existed before Wounded Warrior Project.
Another charity, Keystone Wounded Warriors, was sued for having the name and what WWP deemed a similar logo. That charity reported nearly going broke fighting the Wounded Warrior Project, having to pay out nearly $80,000 in legal fees in court.
WWP publicly pitches just $19 a month helps, as a donor amount.
“If $500,000 in donations came to our organization in $19 increments, we'd be able to save 30 lives. We'd be able to save warriors every day as opposed to it being blown on hotels and retreats,” said one of the anonymous non-profits spokesperson.
News4Jax has been requesting to speak with WWP CEO, Steve Nardizzi, for more than a week now. Repeatedly the answer was his schedule was "too busy." The charity would only offer two people. One is a wounded warrior who benefited from their services -- who News4Jax spoke with.
Alex Brown told News4Jax he credits the WWP with helping him deal with PTSD and his traumatic brain injury. From his perspective, he said the controversy surrounding fundraising and non-program spending is unimportant.
“When I reached out to Wounded Warrior Project, it was a life changer for me. They saved my life,” Brown said.
The other person offered by WWP was a spokesperson for the charity. News4Jax continued to ask if this spokesperson was a current employee or if that person could speak directly to the charity's financials. WWP responded only to say this was a qualified spokesperson.
News4Jax still offers its standing request to speak to Nardizzi to answer the questions only he's best suited to address.
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