TAMPA — The U.S. Navy Veterans Association says it spends millions to send care packages to America's fighting troops overseas, and as proof, the group has posted to its website thank-you letters from soldiers and sailors like Gina Pronzati.
"Everyone in the unit who received a package from you wants to thank you so much,'' reads the letter on navyvets.org from Pronzati, who served with a U.S. Navy K-9 unit in Afghanistan.
But Pronzati says she and her unit never got a care package from the Navy Veterans, and she never wrote the group a thank-you.
Her message ended up on the Navy Veterans website, word for word, except her letter was tweaked to make it appear as if she were thanking the Navy Veterans.
"I knew immediately it was some sort of scam, because it was exactly what I posted on anysailor.com,'' said Pronzati. "It's a pretty horrible thing for someone to do."
The St. Petersburg Times found seven thank-you letters on the Navy Veterans website that were near duplicates of messages written to anysoldier.com or anysailor.com. The Times reached three of the active-duty letter writers; all three said they had never written anything to the Navy Veterans group.
"It's so disturbing when you see something like this,'' said Marty Horn, a 20-year Army veteran who helped start anysoldier.com.
Horn said the idea for the site came from his son Brian, who parachuted into Iraq in 2003 with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade. He told his parents that many soldiers weren't getting mail or packages from home.
Marty Horn believes the Pronzati letter and other copyrighted content from his site was copied from anysoldier.com and pasted onto the website of the Navy Veterans, a charity Horn said he had never heard of.
"I'm disgusted by this,'' he said.
Through its general counsel, Ohio lawyer Helen Mac Murray, the Navy Veterans provided this explanation: The group used anysoldier.com as "an information clearinghouse'' to find overseas care package recipients but in some cases neglected to include any Navy Veterans information with packages the group sent. When a thank-you popped up on anysoldier.com from someone who received that mailing, the Navy Veterans felt justified in changing some language and advertising that thank-you message as its own.
Navy Veterans Association donors, "sometimes out of haste, negligence or simply a belief that charity is its own reward, did not include any Association card or logo or e-mail address" with the mailing, so any thank you went instead to anysoldier.com,'' said the e-mailed response sent through Mac Murray.
"The Association believes it is quite proper and right, in the case of an e-thank-you from such a trooper and recipient, to say that the thank-you was intended for the Association ... They were, after all, the persons who actually provided the package."
Marty Horn's reaction to the Navy Veterans explanation: "What a load!"
Founded in Tampa and granted tax-exempt status in 2002, the Navy Veterans Association said in tax papers that it has chapters in 41 states, nearly 67,000 members and income in excess of $22 million a year — much of it used to send packages to troops overseas.
But a six-month examination by the Times discovered that the charity's officers were nowhere to be found, its offices nothing but a network of rented mailboxes and its donations mostly undisclosed.
Of 85 Navy Veterans officers listed on tax returns, the Times found only one: Lt. Cmdr. Bobby Thompson, the charity's founder. Thompson says he fought in Vietnam but says no military records exist to confirm his service because he took a relative's name to enlist in the Navy at age 15. After the newspaper started asking Thompson questions, he cleared out of the Ybor City duplex he had lived in for a decade and left his landlord no forwarding address.
State attorneys general in New Mexico, Hawaii and Ohio have since shut down the organization in their states, and Florida, Missouri and Virginia are investigating.
U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a Vietnam veteran who served as secretary of the Navy, has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs and the IRS to investigate.
Meanwhile, the Navy Veterans continues to use professional telemarketers to solicit public donations with the promise that much of the donated money will be spent to send "care kits" of food, electronics and hygiene items to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Our troops don't wait to do their part,'' says a fundraising brochure. "Please do not wait any longer to do yours."
On tax documents, the Navy Veterans reported that it spent more than $8.5 million for the care kits in 2008. Using the group's estimated cost of $350 each, that would mean 24,000 care packages sent to U.S. troops that year.
The Navy Veterans has said it has tens of thousands of pages of records that document its spending. But the nonprofit refused to allow inspection of a single receipt.
The group shows evidence of its good works via the thank-you letters posted on its website — except that the military personnel who authored the letters say they never wrote to the Navy Veterans.
Consider Buffy Chi Porter, a U.S. Pacific Fleet sailor who served as a gunner in Afghanistan. Upon returning home, she was honored as one of the Navy's "Enlisted Women of the Year."
From the front last year, Porter e-mailed an appeal to anysoldier.com for snacks, hand lotions and letters.
"We do not get a chance to get a lot of supplies here, but it makes everyone feel good to get letters and boxes from home, to let us know that people care,'' Porter's message read. "Thank you."
Her message also ended up word-for-word on the Navy Veterans site, but with a tweak: "Thank you" became "Thank you, Navy Vets, for all you do."
Porter said her letter was lifted and altered.
"I did not for a fact say, 'Thank you, Navy Vets, for all you do.' They did take that from anysoldier.com. This is very frustrating for me," she said.
Vivian N. Kamara, who served with the U.S. Navy in Iraq, also had the letter she wrote to anysailor.com copied to the Navy Veterans website and edited to make it appear she was thanking the Navy Veterans.
"Greetings from Iraq,'' Kamara wrote to anysailor.com in March 2009 as she described the morale boost troops got from the donations.
"The mail room attendants are always saying, 'Any Sailor' loves you, and I say, they love us all. Thank you again, and the entire camp is appreciative.''
On the Navy Veterans website, Kamara's posting underwent a two-word edit. The portion that read, "The mail room attendants are always saying, 'Any Sailor loves you,' " became, "The mail room attendants are always saying, 'Navy Vets loves you.' "
In an interview, Kamara said she never wrote the Navy Veterans and never got a care kit from the group. "I've never heard of them.''
Marty Horn spends most of his day operating anysoldier.com. The site includes a list of the names of the men and women who posted a communication on his site and were later killed in action. The list has grown to 86.
Forty-eight of those same names are listed on the Navy Veterans website. The list is taken directly from anysoldier.com. Click on the list of 48 on the Navy Veterans site, and you are taken to anysoldier.com and a box displaying the soldier's name, photo, previous messages and details of his or her death.
On the Navy Veterans site, the list of those killed in action is headed: "Association Care Kit Recipients We have Lost."
But Horn says it's impossible for any group to assert that specific soldiers got packages from them.
"When you send a care package, there's no way to trace it," he said. "There's no way to verify troops actually got these packages."
Horn thinks the names of the dead soldiers, like the letters of some of the living sailors, were taken from his site and used to lend authenticity to a group now being investigated from coast to coast.
Horn took offense that the list was lifted without permission. But he was incensed at what to him looked like someone using the names of servicemen killed in action for their own purposes.
"It's outrageous,'' said Horn. "It's freaking outrageous."
Jeff Testerman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3422. John Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3372