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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.
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.
They’re too loud. They take too much credit. They’re unwilling to wait for change. They’re too convinced that their unconventional strategies and overly aggressive approach are more helpful than what other advocates — and the Department of Veterans Affairs — are offering.
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.
To many young veterans looking for a post-military career, he’s a role model. To critics weary of his grandstanding, he’s a villain.
He’s a veteran celebrity, and unapologetic about his personal style.
“When you’re out in front, you’re the one that’s going to take hits,” Rieckhoff said. “But that has been part of our strategy, to get our staff on TV and to keep the focus on our issues. We have a tendency to be a bull in a china shop. We think we have to be.”
Few see the brewing discontent directed at IAVA.
From the outside, the young advocacy group appears to work hand-in-hand on every issue with established veteran service organizations and government agencies. Officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Disabled Veterans of America and a host of other advocates say publicly that the group is an important new voice for all troops and veterans.
But in recent months, IAVA leadership has taken heat on several high profile issues.
Pentagon leaders openly grumbled when the group pushed for a nationwide parade to commemorate the end of the Iraq War, calling it false debate created by IAVA. They’ve drawn criticism for their public contempt for for-profit schools, with assertions that those institutions are destroying the value of the post-9/11 GI Bill.
And they’ve lost friends due to their strong criticism of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, even as other veterans groups have publicly praised his efforts to turn around the department’s longtime struggles with claims backlogs and inadequate mental health care resources.
After a series of news articles critical of Shinseki — prompted by IAVA comments — Student Veterans of America, a young veterans group with close ties to IAVA, issued a statement defending Shinseki and stating that “the secretary is misunderstood by some of [our] peers in the veterans community.”
It was a mild but very unusual public rebuke for veterans lobbying organizations that rarely fight and typically collaborate on all major legislative and policy goals.
Officials from SVA said the comment was not a slap at IAVA. But privately, other veterans advocates celebrated the burgeoning fight, whispering that IAVA has grown too large, too fast without being credible representatives of the generation returning from war.
IAVA officials aren’t surprised at the backlash but say the public perception of who they are is skewed, even by supporters.
They aren’t as large as many people think. The group has only a 40-person staff and $6 million in direct annual revenues. That’s less than what the 82-year-old Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States pulls in each month, and smaller than the $40-million-plus of the Wounded Warrior Project, a 10-year-old veterans advocacy group.
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.
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.
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.
“They aren’t bringing veterans together at a community level,” said an official at another veterans charity, who asked to remain anonymous because of his group’s public dealings with IAVA. “They do everything at a national level and through the Internet. That’s not the same as meeting with members in person.”
IAVA staffers agree that it’s not the same. They believe it’s better.
“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.”
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.
Rieckhoff acknowledges the online model is very different than the one followed by established veterans groups with large support staffs and neighborhood posts dotted across the country.