Small charities make a big difference for veterans
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 4, 2019
AUSTIN, Texas — Fresh from the Marine Corps and readjusting to civilian life as a college student in North Texas, Jason McClure was washing his hands when he heard something fall into the sink. It was piece of his front tooth.
That day in 2010 was the beginning of a downward spiral of dental problems that began during his final year in the military. The pain and anxiety it created only exacerbated the post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury he suffers from a deployment in Afghanistan.
McClure went to a private dentist, who was convinced his problems stemmed from drug use and said all they could do was pull McClure’s teeth and fit him for dentures.
He was still in his 20s.
“I couldn’t look anybody in the eyes, because I didn’t trust them,” said McClure, now 31. “Every doctor I’d gone to for a tooth or anything else called me a liar. I went from being Marine Special Ops to being called a liar. So I wouldn’t bother looking anybody in the eye anymore.”
He quit school and said he became a shut-in. His mother, desperate to help, reached out to an organization called Rebuilding America’s Warriors that offers free dental treatment for veterans whose problems began as a result of their military service. The nonprofit began in 2007 providing plastic surgery to wounded and disfigured veterans and added dentistry nearly three years ago.
Maggie Lockridge, a registered nurse and former member of the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps, founded R.A.W. by using her contacts from the cosmetic and reconstructive surgery recovery center she owned in Beverly Hills to provide surgeries for wounded or disfigured warriors. She branched out to dentistry after receiving many inquiries from veterans.
Dr. David Wilhite, a dentist in Plano, Texas, who has worked on more than 50 veterans for R.A.W., repaired the damage to McClure’s mouth by pulling only one tooth.
R.A.W. is one of about 38,000 veteran-serving charities in the United States. The nonprofits range from well-known — Wounded Warrior Project, the American Legion — to smaller, more niche groups such as R.A.W. that meet specific, under-the-radar needs.
Charities with less than $1 million in annual revenue are considered small and make up about 7% of the veteran-serving nonprofit world. Yet, they often provide key services, said Emma Moore, who researches military and veteran programs for the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan think tank in Washington.
In contrast, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Wounded Warrior Project, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and AMVETS receive up to 59% of the $3.6 billion of revenue collected by all veterans charities.
Many of the small organizations help with very specific needs, sometimes serving a dozen or so veterans at a time without the need or desire for expansion or national attention.
“It’s an incredibly important service,” Moore said. “It’s not a blip on the radar, though they are having an incredible impact.”
Other organizations may have national reach but work with specific branches of service, veterans of specific wars or a specific unit. The Green Beret Foundation’s Next Ridgeline program, for example, focuses on transitioning Green Berets.
The Society of the 1st Infantry Division, a nonprofit based in Fort Riley, Kan., is open to anyone who currently or previously served with “the Big Red One.” It follows a membership model as its main source of funding, similar to some of the larger, older organizations, such as AMVETS.
Through its foundation, the society offers financial assistance to active-duty soldiers, family members and units in situations that are not covered by any other funds.
Over the past three years it has provided about $68,000, said retired Col. Tom Hollis, executive director of the society.
With more than 6,000 members, the organization has paid for a rental car and lodging while a soldier’s son received medical treatment; helped soldiers and veterans affected by wildfires in California; and given out $50 food baskets from the commissary each holiday season.
“All those things we do are charitable grants; we ask for no money back,” Hollis said. “That’s just to continue the Big Red One traditions of excellence, to honor our fallen, live the First Division legacy and take care of our own. We’ve been doing [that] for 100 years now.”
As Spc. Sean LaPlante was preparing to deploy to Europe with the division late last year, he learned his grandmother — who raised him — was dying. His pregnant wife, Ana Adame, said they couldn’t afford for their expanding family of four to make the trip from Fort Riley to Fayetteville, N.C., on such short notice. The society stepped up and got them what they needed.
“They wrote us a check for $1,200 not even two hours after we called them,” Adame said.
That night the family began the 20-hour drive. “It was really amazing because you really don’t see that type of stuff from organizations,” she said.
LaPlante made it in time to spend a day with his grandmother and say goodbye. She died later that night.
“It’s amazing because we all believe she waited for him,” Adame said.
Small but important
Though Americans donated about $3.6 billion to veteran-serving nonprofits in 2016, that is a small percentage of the $390 billion donated to the entire philanthropy market, according to Moore’s research.
While the space for veterans’ charities is “immense,” Moore said many of them aren’t making money. Instead of looking to expand, these organizations tend to keep an all-volunteer staff and focus on a small geographic area or specific need.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes, president and CEO of the Warrior Outreach outside Fort Benning, Ga., likes to keep his budget simple and under $50,000. Instead, he prefers people come out to visit his ranch, see the work and the needs of the nonprofit and make in-kind donations of items. He’s helped about 18,000 veterans and family members since 2008 with equine and music therapy on his horse ranch and provides free home repairs and yardwork.
He works quickly, too. In a typical request, Rhodes said he’ll get a call that someone, quite often the widow of a veteran, needs something like a new hot water heater. He’ll pick one up after work, then install it himself that weekend.
“I never know how to say no, but why should I?” he said.
He’s helped patch roofs, repainted kitchens and built wheelchair ramps at no cost. He often finds servicemembers from Fort Benning to help with the labor.
“It’s an opportunity to take soldiers with challenges and have them go out and help guys who served in Vietnam and WWII, even some of our early (Operation Iraqi Freedom) guys,” Rhodes said. “They back up a minute and say, ‘I really don’t have many problems compared to those folks.’ The only thing I’m battling is my mind. These guys lost limbs or were wounded.”
Rhodes was in the Army for 29 years, including three combat tours. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2005 and said he had considered suicide. He found solace, he said, in caring for horses, which gave him a new purpose. In 2008, he created Warrior Outreach to give vets and their families free access to horses on his ranch.
R.A.W, based in Rancho Mirage, Calif., relies on its network of more than 370 doctors in 49 states to provide expensive procedures and dental equipment free to veterans. Wilhite estimated he has provided more than $750,000 worth of labor. His wife and office manager, Nancy Wilhite, called around to labs and found some willing to provide bridges and crowns, and some specialty surgeons to place implants.
Dental services are not widely offered at the Department of Veterans Affairs, limited to vets with a 100 percent disability rating. Some of the veterans David Wilhite sees say the VA wanted to pull teeth instead of using more costly procedures that offer longevity for the patient.
“After you take out teeth, the bone starts to deteriorate. The only reason for the bone to be there is to hold the roots of the teeth,” David Wilhite said. “Then you start going on a softer and softer diet, since don’t have any teeth to chew with. Then there’s less fiber in the diet, and the rates of colon cancer go up and diabetes, obesity and heart disease.”
McClure was in his 20s when he was told his only option was dentures.
“When you do dentures on someone who’s 20 or 30 years old, in 10 years they’ve lost so much bone that the denture is just flapping,” Nancy Wilhite said. “By the time they are 50 or 60 years old, they’re gumming their food. It’s a horrific future. And these are guys who were fine when they went into the service.”
Even veterans who are employed and have insurance face insurmountable dental costs.
Warren Frysinger spent 18 years in the Navy Reserves and works for the U.S. Marshals Office in Grand Prairie, Texas. Injured while on deployment to Kuwait in 2010, he returned stateside and began recovery for his injuries as well as tooth pain that had begun overseas. Before the dental work could be completed, he was separated from the service and had not signed on with the VA.
With a daughter with disabilities and a son starting college, paying thousands out-of-pocket for dental work was just not possible, even with insurance, he said.
“By the time I finally got here two to three years later, the tooth was so brittle that when he went to pull it, it just snapped,” Frysinger, now 61, said.
In a job requiring so much public engagement, the dental work had a major impact on his life and his emotional well-being. “I can actually put a smile on my face,” he said.
Before donating or seeking services from a charity, the Federal Trade Commission advises people do their research.
Last year, the FTC, along with charity regulators in 70 offices located within every state and several U.S. territories, announced more than 100 actions against fraudulent veteran charities. A common recommendation is to visit charity rating websites to see whether the organization has been rated or flagged in any way.
Charity Navigator, the largest U.S. independent charity evaluator, lists more than 9,000 nonprofits. However, it does not rate ones with less than $1 million in total revenue. That can make it challenging to tell whether a small charity is worthwhile.
A common rating system determines the percentage of donations that go toward expenses versus services, known as the “efficiency rate,” said Emma Moore, who researches military and veteran programs for the Center for a New American Security.
On average, small veterans charities have a 66% efficiency rate, Moore said. Most rating services look for about 85%.
These numbers should be “taken with a grain of salt,” Moore said, because they can often make large charities with large overhead costs look bad, or negatively skew small charities that report less information.
“From the veteran serving nonprofit space, it’s very hard to compare one to another because they all offer such discreet services,” Moore said. “It’s apples to oranges.”
Moore also recommends looking at a charity’s website and reading its annual report to learn more about how they fund services. All should be 501(c)3 registered, and donations should be listed as tax-deductible.
— Rose L. Thayer
Warren Frysinger points to a shadow box he made for Dr. David Wilhite during a visit to the office in Plano, Texas on March 6. Frysinger offered the gift to thank Wilhite for the free dental work he provided him through the nonprofit Rebuilding America???s Warriors. Rose L. Thayer/Stars and Stripes
ROSE L. THAYER/STARS AND STRIPES