In distant war zones, unusual non-profit aids U.S. troops

DIFFA, Niger (Reuters) - The non-profit group Spirit of America has spent $75,000 in Niger, funding projects such as veterinary scholarships that offer youths an alternative to joining extremist groups.

That might not seem like a lot of money. But Jim Hake, the group’s founder and chief executive, said the investment in one of the world’s poorest countries makes entrepreneurial sense.

“It was $75,000 on top of zero,” said Hake, 58, who made his fortune as an early Internet entrepreneur. “There are windows of opportunity ... Anybody who invests in the stock market knows that.”

Los Angeles-based Spirit of America is among the more unusual players on the increasingly complex battlefields that define Washington’s global struggle against violent extremists. It aims to marry business acumen with philanthropy to help U.S. troops win local populations’ hearts and minds in distant and sometimes forgotten war zones.

In west Africa’s Niger, it is supporting a small force of U.S. Special Forces troops helping villagers resist intimidation by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

Unlike most humanitarian and non-governmental organizations working in conflict areas, the group does not shy away from close association with the U.S. military. Its supporters and advisory board include a roster of high-ranking retired generals and admirals.

There are four widely recognized humanitarian principles - humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. “We violate (the last) three out of four,” Hake told Reuters in Washington.

Hake founded the group in 2003 using his and his wife’s funds, after having what he calls his “light bulb moment.” The impetus was a TV program on U.S. Special Forces. It depicted how an Army sergeant, Jay Smith, had built goodwill among Afghan villagers by providing equipment donated by friends and family for them to play baseball. Attacks on the U.S. troops plummeted.

Hake, who had no military experience, tracked Smith down at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the Army’s Special Operations Command. Then he sold his idea for an organized philanthropic effort to top military brass.

Hake and his colleagues say they have strict rules about what they will and won’t do. They don’t provide weapons; get involved in intelligence matters; or accept government funding. The group reports receiving a total of more than $22 million in private donations.

Still, in 2009, Pentagon lawyers ruled that the group’s work was essentially illegal. For a U.S. military commander to ask it for help was an improper solicitation of gifts, they said.

The group now operates under formal agreements with U.S. military commands, with U.S. commanders identifying local needs and relaying them to Spirit of America.

It has 35 projects underway globally, with the focus on small scale and quick impact. It has purchased sewing machines to provide income for Afghan war widows; and computers to help steer students in Guyana toward jobs and away from extremism.

The Pentagon’s annual $500 billion-plus budget presumably could cover such items, but budget cycles move slowly.

“You submit a request for equipment, and it can take anywhere from a year or more - two years - before you get it,” said retired Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, who recently retired as head of Army Special Operations Command and sits on Spirit of America’s advisory board. “They’re very agile,” he said.

Editing by Stuart Grudgings