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Bellavia vow to help vets unfulfilled 3 years later

David Bellavia vowed that the charity he co-founded and led would build a camp for the children of wounded service members, work to bring soldiers into classrooms to promote military service among students and "change the culture of America" regarding its relationship with its veterans.

"We're going to bring dignity back to military service," he said on a Boston talk radio show in May 2009. "This organization -- I'm more proud of than anything I've ever done, next to serving, quite frankly."

But three years later, there's no such camp and no such programs. Instead, Bellavia's Warrior Legacy Foundation amounts to one active organization in Maine and a series of unfulfilled promises.

Now running for Congress as a Republican in New York's 27th District, Bellavia portrays the charity's problems as a reflection of the nation's weak economy.

His supporters defend his record of military service with the U.S. Army in Iraq by noting that his opponent for the GOP nomination, former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, received deferments during the Vietnam era and never served in the military.

Still, the story of the Warrior Legacy Foundation -- its financial struggles and its failure to file the legal paperwork required for such a charity -- proves one thing:

As a soldier, Bellavia may have made heroism look easy, but as a veteran, he has struggled to meet his lofty goals for helping his comrades.

"We dreamed of it being a giant national movement, and we ended up taking root in Maine," Bellavia conceded. "Even though we had these big dreams, we were going to do [the] best we could for the people who needed it."

That program works to support veterans in Maine once they return from war, and it's a success to date, said Pam Payeur, program director. She lauded Bellavia and the other veterans who founded the Warrior Legacy Foundation. "We work under their constant guidance, support and wisdom," she said.

But the Maine group also works with the resources of a $60,000 bequest, said John Wagner, business director of the Warrior Legacy Foundation. "It's the only substantial donation we've ever received," he said, adding that the national group has not raised enough money to have to file a detailed 990 form with the IRS spelling out its finances, as required for most charities.

The group has struggled despite the fact that it was founded by well-known combat veterans, none more so than Bellavia, the group's executive director between early 2009 and early 2011.

The recipient of a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and several other military honors for his heroism in Iraq, the Army veteran is the author of the best-selling book "House to House: An Epic Memoir of War."

He later served as a key figure behind Vets for Freedom, a political group that raised $175,750 to back Republican candidates in 2008.

But Bellavia has found it was easier to pound down doors to capture insurgents in Iraq than it has been to knock on the doors of potential donors for his veterans aid group.

Bellavia attributed that fact to the group's founding not long after the nation's 2008 financial crisis. "All the donors, all the people we earmarked to help us out -- the bottom just fell out," he said. "These guys lost a quarter of their income in one quarter."

As a result, many of the group's goals remain unmet.

"What we want to do is start a camp where children of fallen soldiers and children of injured vets with prosthetics can be put through a camp environment to see what their parents went through," Bellavia said in the 2009 interview.

But in February 2010, the Marcus Luttrell Warrior Legacy Ranch Program, the group's partner in that camp venture, parted ways with the group.

"Recently the board of directors at the Warrior Legacy Foundation was informed by Marcus Luttrell's business management that they no longer wanted Marcus' name attached with WLF's with regards to the Marcus Luttrell Warrior Legacy Ranch project," Bellavia's group said on its website at the time.

Luttrell, a prominent veteran, did not respond to requests to comment on the break between the groups.

Bellavia attributed the falling-out to different visions. He wanted the camp built on donated land in Montana, with a focus on veterans' families.

Luttrell, Bellavia said, favored a more expensive Texas location and programs in which vets hunted and worked with animals to help with their re-entry into civilian life.

While the Warrior Legacy Foundation struggled with its finances and the departure of its partner on its most prominent project, it also struggled with legal requirements in Colorado, where it was chartered.

It failed to file required reports with the office of the Colorado secretary of state several times between June 2010 and last March -- a failure that isn't Bellavia's fault, Wagner said.

"That's my oversight," Wagner said. "It's due to me being on extensive travels. I never filed it. David trusted me to take care of it."

Bellavia, a member of the charity's board, denied responsibility. "I'm not the books guy," he said. "I'm the idea man."

Wagner said Bellavia is a combat veteran whose experience would be invaluable in Congress, adding that his military record poses a stark contrast to Collins'. "[Collins] hid behind student deferments to avoid the draft," Wagner said. "I think that's pretty sad."

But Collins said his student deferments were automatic.

"I was born in 1950, I went to college in 1968 and like others had a draft deferment," he said. "I graduated in 1972 and was then eligible for the draft. I would have proudly served my country, but by then the Vietnam War was winding down, and I was not drafted."

Collins also stressed that he comes from a military family: His father served as an Army lieutenant and was awarded a Bronze Star in World War II.

He also said his business background will allow him to help veterans if he is elected to Congress. "Their issue today is they're coming back and don't have jobs," he said. "The thing that I can bring to Congress, uniquely, in this case, is 36 years of creating jobs in the small-business world."

Bellavia maintains that his background as a combat veteran will bring a perspective to Congress. He has been touting that perspective in visits to veterans groups across the sprawling 27th District in recent weeks as he battles with Collins for the right to face Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst.

He said that, win or lose, he will remain active with the Warrior Legacy Foundation.

He talks about bringing drill sergeants and combat veterans to inner-city schools as teachers, bringing to America the Iraqi and Afghan translators who worked with the U.S. military and persuading the NFL to share its helmet technology with the Pentagon.

"There are all of these things I'm really proud of, and it's just a matter of setting up the right donor forum," he said. "I really believe in this. I'm just really proud of it."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com.