FORT DRUM, N.Y. – Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division (LI) gathered March 5 at the Commons to help kick off the annual Army Emergency Relief campaign as their units’ AER representatives.
AER was established in 1942 by the Army chief of staff and secretary of war as a nonprofit organization focused on relieving the financial distress of service members and their families.
Michael Ferguson, Fort Drum AER officer, said the organization is a vital part of Soldier readiness, which in turn supports Army readiness as a whole.
“We provide assistance to our active-duty Soldiers, retired Soldiers and surviving spouses by means of interest-free loans, grants and grant-loan combinations,” he said.
There are 24 categories of assistance that AER can provide for Soldiers, to include emergency travel, medical and hospital, fire and disasters, minor home repairs and relocation expenses.
Three new categories were added this year for immigration assistance, special needs assistance (for equipment not covered by TRICARE or other insurances) and spouse re-licensing and re-certification.
“The Army recognized the need to help spouses who have professional licenses and certifications, but when they relocate to a new post they incur re-licensing fees,” Ferguson said. “The Army has taken steps to help them with that issue, and AER is also going to support them as well.”
Ferguson also discussed a new program that provides funding for child care in the event that a family moves to an installation where the Child and Youth Services program has no vacancies at their child development centers.
“The Army is going to offset the cost of child care outside the gate, but depending on where you are and how many children you have, that may not be enough,” he said. “So, for the first three months AER will provide additional funds with the hope that CYS vacancies will open up in that time or other opportunities become available.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Roberto Munoz, Fort Drum garrison senior enlisted adviser, said that he was proud that, in the six months he has served on post, he has never had to deny an AER request.
“As an approval authority and, perhaps more importantly, someone who has witnessed the power of this program for those in real need, it is an honor for me to be here to talk about a few key points about AER,” he said.
Munoz said that Army Emergency Relief has improved the quality of life for Soldiers and family members, and he spoke about how much it had impacted the morale and well-being of one service member who needed emergency dental surgery.
“That was an enormous, unplanned expense that many among us would not be able to shoulder,” he said. “AER was able to help with a grant and a no-interest loan. Make no mistake, this is likely still quite a burden on this family, but through AER the impossible burden was made bearable.”
Munoz also said that AER is not an ATM and should not be seen as “free money” but as a way to alleviate financial distress.
“AER offers a good choice for Soldiers in financial crisis, but it is not a handout,” he said. “It is a safe option. It is a way we keep our promise to leave no Soldier behind.”
Ferguson said that AER does not just address issues through monetary means, but it also seeks to educate Soldiers through counseling and classes from Army Community Service’s Financial Readiness Program.
“We’re going to fix the problem, but the financial readiness team is also going to talk to you about budgeting, debt reduction, credit repair and more,” he said. “Because, again, financial readiness is Army readiness.”
Ferguson said that AER assistance is available 24/7, every day, worldwide. He said that after business hours, Soldiers can call the American Red Cross and connect to AER headquarters for assistance. If a Soldier is on leave and encounters an emergency, the Red Cross will coordinate support at the nearest available AER office.
“AER is always available to you,” Ferguson said. “So, think AER first when it comes to your financial need. Give us the opportunity to say yes. I want you to not use that credit card, stay away from those predatory lenders – they do not have your back. They are outside the wire, outside the gate. There’s a reason why AER is on this side of the gate. We are part of the Army, and we are effectively part of the mission of readiness.”
At Fort Drum, more than $1.6 million in funds were provided to roughly 1,275 Soldiers in 2019. AER processed 540 educational grants in the amount of $215,229 during the 2018-19 academic year, and assisted more than 4,000 students (children and spouses).
AER receives no federal funding, and 90 cents of every dollar donated through the campaign goes right back to Soldiers.
“Why should we donate to AER? It’s really simple,” Ferguson said. “It’s the morally correct thing to do. Soldiers taking care of Soldiers. No one knows when they will need AER. One thing is for sure: since 1942, AER is there, and ready and willing to assist and take care of our Soldiers, our families and our military communities.”
Ferguson said that, as a former Soldier, he had never sought AER assistance, but as the father of five daughters the AER scholarship program supported their educational goals.
Scholarship applications can be completed online at www.aerhq.org, with an annual deadline of April 1. The program is for dependent children of active and retired Soldiers, and it is based on financial need, academics and leadership / achievement.
During the kick-off campaign, Ferguson told the story about a World War II Soldier returning from Europe in 1945. Upon returning to Fort Benning, Georgia, the combat veteran was celebrating with his friends. The next morning he realized that he had lost his train ticket to return home.
“A senior noncommissioned officer had recognized the situation, took that veteran over to AER, and they got him a train ticket,” Ferguson said. “He got home. Sixty years later, this veteran never forgot that act of kindness, that generosity. In his passing, he left $80,000 of his estate to Army Emergency Relief. That is something that really struck me hard. That’s what AER is all about. You never know how you will affect the life of another Soldier.”
The AER campaign runs from March 1 through May 31, and Ferguson said that they already got a head start of roughly $50,000 from 1st Brigade Combat Team Soldiers before they deployed.
“We reached out to our AER coordinator from the brigade, who enthusiastically reached out to the brigade command sergeant major who wanted to do an early AER kickoff before their deployment,” Ferguson said. “We sat down with all of the battalions’ command sergeants major and their AER representatives, and they took it by the horns and got the donation campaign going.”