In just eight years, IAVA has transformed itself from an upstart veterans organization to a lobbying heavyweight and media favorite. For many Americans not connected to the military, they’ve become the face not just of the current combat generation but of all veterans.
That infuriates their critics, who see IAVA as a small, unrepresentative sample of returning war heroes, a veterans group with an uncharacteristic liberal bent and a business model that emphasizes online communities over traditional outreach.
WASHINGTON — In 2006, at the height of the Iraq War, staffers at the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America practically had to beg reporters to cover their news conferences. Now, IAVA representatives are frequent cable news guests and regulars at hearings on Capitol Hill, where few if any veterans initiatives are passed without their blessing.
They’re advertising stars, thanks to donated public service spots and a partnership with Miller High Life. IAVA events drew crowds at the Super Bowl and this year’s presidential political conventions, among dozens of other high-profile events.
At the center of it all is the group’s founder, Army veteran Paul Rieckhoff, whose oversized personality and “mission first” mantra have become intertwined with IAVA’s rise and stumbles.
Worrell said Community of Veterans also serves as a sounding board for IAVA leadership, even though civilian employees have only limited access to the site. Staffers monitor conversations to see what problems veterans are having with their benefits and what news topics are resonating with the group.
“This is sacred ground for the people who use it,” said Jacob Worrell, special projects coordinator for IAVA. “For our veterans, they know this is a place where everyone knows everyone, and they can reach out to other veterans safely. When they log in, they know someone is watching out for them and cares about them. And we know this forum has saved lives.”
Much of the behind-the-scenes criticism leveled at the group focuses on him, the founder and director of the group. Several people interviewed said they will start supporting IAVA the day he leaves.
The 4-year-old chat site is IAVA’s crown jewel and also a frequent target of critics, who charge that it’s little more than a Facebook clone to boost membership figures.
Unlike many other veterans organizations, IAVA does not elect its leadership. Rieckhoff is in charge until he decides to step away, or until the group’s board members pressure him to do so.
IAVA claims 200,000 members but doesn’t charge any dues for membership or programming, so critics question just how many veterans they truly represent. The group conducted more than 350 events last year — dozens of baseball games, concert meet-ups and resume-building classes — but the bulk of the interactions come on the Community of Veterans site, an online bulletin board closed to everyone except verified veterans.
In recent months, he has used the networking site to call out Shinseki on veterans benefits delays, his lack of public press appearances and the secretary’s decision not to sit down in person with IAVA leadership. The terms “VA” and “failure” appear frequently together on his Twitter feed.
The site — a frequent critic of IAVA — accused him of being a military fraud and a hypocrite in light of IAVA’s support of Stolen Valor laws. Others detractors followed suit.
But IAVA officials boast that the organization also received almost $20 million in donated services and assistance in 2011 alone, which “allows us to punch above our weight class,” Rieckhoff said. Those donations include the group’s pricey Madison Avenue offices in New York City, as well as a series of television and print public service advertisements to promote IAVA programs.
His first attempt at that was founding Operation Truth, a self-proclaimed nonpartisan veterans advocacy group that garnered attention for its pointed criticism of President George W. Bush’s decisions on the Iraq War. The group eventually morphed into IAVA, shifting more toward such issues as GI Bill benefits reform and mental health advocacy.