KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As many as 100 World War II veterans missed their chance to travel to Washington to see their war’s memorial after about $110,000 disappeared from a Kansas nonprofit that organized free trips for them.
Richard Foster, the president of the board for an organization that ran Central Prairie Honor Flights, fears some of the veterans will never see the National World War II Memorial. It wasn’t completed until 2004, and with more than 600 World War II veterans dying daily, there is urgency to the effort to help them see the memorial.
Central Prairie Honor Flights was the largest trip organizer in Kansas and raised nearly $1.2 million for them between 2008 and 2012. Flights were halted this year, however, after more than $100,000 went missing from the group’s account. Its program director, LaVeta Miller, was charged in October with two counts of theft by deception.
“With that kind of money, we could have completed the World War II veterans or come close,” Foster said. “It really pulled the rug out from under us.”
Before the flights stopped, nearly 800 veterans made the trip from Kansas to the nation’s capital on flights chartered by the Great Bend, Kan.-based group. It pooled donations from everything from 4-H groups to children’s lemonade stands to pay for the trips.
But this spring, the group canceled two charter flights that would have transported as many as 220 more veterans. Another group called Kansas Honor Flight sprung up, but the three trips it hurriedly organized on commercial flights included less than half of the veterans who would have gone on the chartered flights.
Miller began helping administer the Honor Flight program in April 2009 and was promoted to program manager in April 2011. In the spring, around the time the flights were canceled, Springfield, Ohio-based Honor Flight Network decided it no longer wanted the Great Bend group to help organize trips for the national network. It cited problems with reports being filed late and a veteran breaking a rib on a trip.
In July, Central Prairie Resource Conservation & Development, which oversaw the Honor Flights as one of its community projects, closed its Great Bend office and fired Miller because it no longer had the money to pay her $22,000-per-year salary. An investigation ensued.
“I had her back and thought it was a witch hunt, and then I started seeing the evidence,” Foster said. The evidence included invoices that were changed and direct deposits to Miller’s bank account, he said.
Miller, who is free on bail, made her first court appearance Monday.
Many veterans remain skeptical of the charges, noting that that Miller didn’t have a luxurious lifestyle. She lived in a small, rented home and never seemed to have much cash, they said. During a recent bingo night at the American Legion hall in Great Bend, Miller mingled with veterans.