An empty dinner table made preparing to deploy to the Middle East that much harder for then-Pfc. Anthony Bayes.

"I just got (married)," Bayes, now a first sergeant and the senior noncommissioned officer of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison-West Point, said Tuesday. "We were living off post. We were having some difficulties with some of our regular bills and didn't have a lot of food to put in the refrigerator."

One of Bayes' sergeants told him about Army Emergency Relief, a charity that helps Soldiers, Army retirees and their Families through tough financial times through no-interest loans and grants. Bayes received a loan, set up a repayment plan and got his growing Family back on track before deploying in support of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"What was really great about it was it got me through that tough time," Bayes said. "But it also took into consideration--without me asking--my deployment to Desert Storm."

Bayes noticed his payments to AER had stopped when he deployed. When he returned and asked about it, he was told his loan was converted to a grant and he no longer had to repay AER because he was deployed.

"Ever since then, I always give every month" to AER, Bayes said.

For those who perhaps haven't considered contributing to AER, now is the time to help Soldiers and their Families through tough times.

Officials with West Point's Army Community Services, the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation program through which AER is administered, are hoping to raise $100,000 in the next two months. The AER fundraising campaign begins Monday with a 3 p.m. kickoff at ACS, Bldg. 622, and continues through May 1.

More than $142,700 was provided to West Point Soldiers and Families through AER grants and loans in 2008, according to statistics provided by Jill O'Brien, West Point ACS director. The money helped pay mostly for rent, emergency vehicle repairs and utilities for Soldiers with ranks ranging from private to lieutenant colonel.

AER loans and grants at West Point also paid for funeral and emergency travel expenses, food and to cover essential bills for Soldiers who were not paid on time.

The money donated to AER at West Point last year only covered about two-thirds of the loans and grants that were provided, according to figures provided by ACS. About $88,000 was raised last year, which is about equal to what was given out in 2007.

But, as economic hardships grow, so do demands on the charity. In 2008, the greater AER organization provided $83 million--$9 million more than the previous year--in loans and grants.

While donations to AER have increased in recent years, the organization had to spend each donation plus $51.5 million in investments to fulfill the needs of Soldiers between 2003-07, retired Lt. Gen. Robert Foley, AER director, said in a statement posted on the AER's Web site.

According to figures provided by Foley, $252 million was used to help 258,000 Soldiers from 2003-07, which differs from what was published by the Associated Press on Sunday. Citing tax records, the AP reported only $64 million went to help Soldiers and their Families during that time period.

"The recent Associated Press article on AER incorrectly infers that Army Emergency Relief withheld financial assistance from Soldiers and Families during a time of need," Foley said.

Foley-Medal of Honor recipient, U.S. Military Academy class of 1963 and the 63rd Commandant of Cadets-cited AER's four-star rating by Charity Navigator, an independent charity evaluator, as further proof of the organization's credibility. The rating is based on "sound fiscal management," according to the letter AER officials received in October notifying them of the rating. AER has received the four-star rating, Charity Navigator's highest, for three straight years.

In 2008, AER also awarded $13 million in scholarships to Soldiers' spouses and children, Foley said.

Four college students who list West Point as their home of record received $12,800 in 2008 from the Maj. Gen. James Ursano Scholarship Program and the Stateside Spouse Education Assistance Program, both of which are administered by AER.

Anyone interested in donating to AER may contact Amy Weyhrauch for more information at 938-5839, attend the kick-off Monday or visit the AER Web site at www.aerhq.org.

Page last updated Thu February 26th, 2009 at 15:27