Clear48° WeatherClear48° Weather

Navy Veterans Association takes credit for letters to troops from children at Catholic school

A year ago, the children at the Academy of Saints Peter and Paul in Minnesota wrote letters to American troops overseas, including a U.S. sailor stationed in Iraq named Vivian N. Kamara.

After receiving the children's letters, Kamara posted her thanks to them in a message on anysoldier.com, a website that connects deployed U.S. troops with Americans who want to send mail or care packages.

"We are proud to report that we have received our first set of letters from the Academy of Saints Peter and Paul,'' Kamara wrote.

Without permission, Kamara's letter was copied and put on the website of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, with a key alteration:

"Academy of Saints Peter and Paul" was erased, replaced by "the Middlesex County Girl Scout troop."

Word that the credit deserved by the Catholic school students was claimed by someone else distressed Heidi Dondelinger, an administrator at the academy. The letters were a project during Catholic Schools week for the suburban Minneapolis academy, which has about 100 students, preschool through eighth grade.

"That is such a bizarre thing to do,'' Dondelinger said. "What's so frustrating is that it was so important to our kids to do these letters for the soldiers.

"That some other group is getting the credit is so upsetting. And all to put money in someone's pocket."

As for the Girl Scout troop that got the credit on the Navy Veterans website — the group already featured a color photo of 11 girls from Troop 04-6, from Middlesex County, N.J., along with letters they were said to have written to thank the Navy Veterans for sending care packages to U.S. troops.

"Our country is free because of what the Navy Vets have done for it. God bless you," said the letter from "Albina Z." of Troop 04-6.

Except there is no Troop 04-6 in Middlesex County.

"I can definitely say that this is not one of our Middlesex County troops as all of our troops have five digits in their troop number and all of our troops from Middlesex begin with 60," said Nancy Zimmerman, communications director for the Heart of New Jersey Girl Scouts.

Melissa Blake, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scout Council of Central and Southern New Jersey, which covers the rest of Middlesex County, also said all troops there go by five-digit numbers.

In e-mails to the Navy Veterans general counsel, Ohio attorney Helen Mac Murray, the St. Petersburg Times asked why Kamara's letter was altered to replace the Catholic school's name with a purported Girl Scout troop already on the Navy Veterans website.

Mac Murray and the Navy Veterans provided no explanation.

The Kamara letter is the latest example of manipulated data or unverifiable claims made by the Navy Veterans, a nonprofit that continues to raise money around the country. Founded in Tampa, the IRS granted the group tax-exempt status in 2002.

The Times has revealed that the Navy Veterans' members and officers are nowhere to be found, its offices are rented mailboxes and the details of most of its spending are kept secret. The only officer the Times could find is Lt. Cmdr. Bobby Thompson, who founded the group and has personally given more than $181,000 to candidates around the country.

Several states have since begun investigations.

Last week, the Times reported that the Navy Veterans lifted letters troops had written to anysoldier.com, copied them to its own website and altered some of them to make them appear that soldiers were thanking the Navy Veterans.

The Times interviewed three U.S. sailors whose letters were copied, including Kamara. All three said they never received packages from the Navy Veterans or wrote them thank-yous.

"I've never heard of them," Kamara said.

The Navy Veterans told the IRS that in the last two years, it spent a total of more than $16 million on care packages.

Why appropriate thank-you notes and alter them if you could just use a thank-you note from one of the thousands of troops you've helped?

In an explanation last week, the Navy Veterans said it neglected to include information identifying the sender in its "care kits" and later noticed thank-you messages on anysoldier.com from troops it had sent items to. So the Navy Veterans said the group felt justified lifting and even altering those letters to take credit.

In a section on its website called "In the News," the Navy Veterans says the Times "pounded" Kamara and two other U.S. sailors "to get them to say they never received a kit from the Association."

The group also points to thank-you notes from 13 members of an Air Force unit in Iraq that received $9,000 in care kits from the Navy Veterans "in one day."

What the news item doesn't say is that the group's New Mexico chapter spent the $9,000 just weeks after the attorney general there declared the group's officers "fictional" and ordered the chapter to shut down.

The Navy Veterans paid for the care kits with the remaining funds in its New Mexico chapter bank account, according to a letter the charity sent the attorney general reporting that it was ceasing operations there.

Here is one of the letters on the Navy Veterans site purported to be from a girl in a Scout troop that Middlesex County officials say does not exist:

"Dear USNVA, Thank you for making this country safe. My name is Rebecca Angela. I am a fourth grade girl growing up in New Jersey. My grandfather was in the Navy. He fought in World War II and the Korren (sic) Conflict. He even did the secret SACO mission!"

The SACO mission the fourth-grader mentioned refers to the Sino American Cooperative Organization, a U.S. Naval group that participated in intelligence gathering, guerrilla training and the rescue of downed airmen behind Japanese lines in China during World War II.

The Times asked Mac Murray, the Navy Veterans general counsel, for contact information for the Middlesex County Girl Scout troop pictured on her client's website. Mac Murray did not respond.

Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3422. John Martin can be reached at jmartin@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3372.

Navy Veterans Association takes credit for letters to troops from children at Catholic school 06/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 11:54am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...