Outgoing WWP leader sees continued strain on vets, but more support

by Vern Evans

Mike Linnington is awed by what he sees as a still-growing number of volunteers reaching out to help troops and veterans as they shift from military life into civilian society.

“We have a list of people a mile long who want to get involved,” the CEO of Wounded Warrior Project told Military Times in an interview earlier this month. “When I got here, we had just a handful of peer support group leaders. Now we have more than 100, and 400 more leading events in their communities as volunteers.

“We just keep hearing from people who want to be out there helping and advocating for their veteran brothers and sisters.”

Unfortunately, Linnington said, the need for help among disabled veterans is still growing, too. More than a decade after major fighting ended in Iraq and Afghanistan, WWP leaders still see struggles among wounded veterans in finding work, getting medical care and taking care of their families.

“Those are areas where we’re all going to need to do more,” he said.

Addressing those shortfalls through WWP programs, however, will no longer fall to Linnington.

Last week, the former Army lieutenant general stepped down as CEO of the non-profit after eight years leading the organization. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt took his place for the next phase of the non-profit’s operations.

Linnington began his tenure in 2016 with an overhaul of the organization in the wake of a management scandal that featured exorbitant staff salaries, lavish corporate retreats and other reckless spending.

In the years since, the organization has recentered around long-term financial aid packages for severely wounded veterans, emotional support for families, career guidance for struggling individuals and social events across the country.

The non-profit celebrated its 20th anniversary last August and remains a behemoth in the veterans community, with nearly $250 million in annual program spending. Linnington said he is proud of what the organization has accomplished during his tenure, and believes it is set up to remain a consistent force in the community for years to come.

But he’s also impressed with the changes he has seen in the veterans and non-profit community in general.

Volunteer numbers are up. Cooperation among charities is, too, he said. And after years of military community focus on the issue, Linnington believes that the stigma of veterans asking for mental health help may be finally fading.

“The work between Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department on the issue, with veterans service organizations and the media — we’ve seen a pretty significant reduction in the stigma with mental health care,” he said. “And that means more veterans are reaching out when they need it.”

The trick now, he said, is making sure those resources are available to veterans when they do ask.

“I think the tsunami that’s coming is brain health and cancers from military service,” he said. “Concussive injuries and your 20s and 30s may catch up with you in your 50s and 60s. And we’re seeing a huge increase in cancers from toxic exposures. The community is going to have to deal with that.”

WWP has also focused in recent years on employment difficulties among injured veterans. While overall veteran unemployment has largely stayed below national levels, the jobless rate among disabled veterans has remained nearly twice as high as other veterans, according to group research.

“In our last warrior survey, six out of 10 of our members said they’re having difficulty making ends meet,” he said. “Credit card debt is not just a veterans issue, it’s an American issue, but it’s hurting our community, too.”

But Linnington leaves his post optimistic that those matters can all be addressed, especially given more focus on the issues in recent years by the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs leadership. He said coordination between the two departments — not always a given in the past — is the strongest he has seen in years, giving him hope for the future.

“Nobody can fix all of this alone,” he said. “I think we’re all working together really well now, and that’s important for the future of the post-9/11 veterans.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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