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. Her attorney, Robert Anderson, refused to comment on the charges against her. She doesn't have a listed number, and a message sent to her through Facebook was not returned.
Barton County Attorney Douglas Matthews said he couldn't comment about the investigation or a possible motive. But said if there is a guilty verdict in the case, his office will seek restitution.
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.
"She is a nice woman, and nobody thinks a thing about her being here," said Larry Buczinski, 65, of Great Bend, a retired Army staff sergeant who served in Vietnam. He said he suspects evidence was planted in Miller's home to implicate her in the thefts.
"Nobody here really believes what has happened to her," he said.
Before organizing the flights, Miller led the Kansas chapter of the American Legion Auxiliary in 2007 and 2008. The group conducts external audits and isn't aware of any problems, said Cherie Thomas, who now leads the auxiliary.
"Everybody is just shocked, that's all I can say," she said.
In hindsight, Foster said he wished his group conducted external audits too. It is nearly $40,000 in debt with about $14,000 of that owed to a prison printing shop that made keepsake memory books for veterans. With no money, it's now relying on volunteers to do things like apply for grants.
Jim McLaughlin, chairman of the board of the Honor Flight Network, said the national group exercises no financial oversight of the local groups that provide the flights. It was completely surprised by the charges against Miller, he said.
The now-defunct Central Prairie Honor Flights has handed over its records, along with leftover hats and T-shirts, to Hutchinson-based Kansas Honor Flight. President Mike VanCampen said Kansas Honor Flight volunteers have called people on the Central Prairie waiting list and been told they died or were too ill to fly.
"That is the call we hate to make," VanCampen said. "We just have to say we are sorry to hear that and couldn't get him up to Washington to see the memorial built in his honor."