FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Hardship comes in various forms, but one program exists solely for the purpose of helping Soldiers and families in those hard times.

Retired Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, Army Emergency Relief director, and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Durr, AER financial assistance, visited Fort Rucker Nov. 30 to gain a better understanding of what Soldiers and families need when it comes to emergency relief, said Beth Gunter, Fort Rucker AER financial counselor.

Mason's visit to Fort Rucker was just one stop on his tour of installations and the AER programs within them in order to assess the needs of Soldiers, how AER is meeting those needs and what the program can do to improve the service it provides, said Gunter.

To kick off their visit, Mason and Durr presented Bobby Michael, Army Aviation Center Federal Credit Union president and CEO, and Lisa Hale, AACFCU vice president of marketing, with a certificate of appreciation for the institution's dedication to AER over the past 50 years.

The AER director then met with Fort Rucker AER staff, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and garrison leadership, as well as various directorates within the garrison. Mason also met with spouses of senior and junior leaders to better understand the needs from their point of view, as well.

"Our spouses are involved in the finances of their household and AER is there to help the Soldiers and their family members, so (they discussed) how can we provide more education on the benefits of AER, and how they go about requesting assistance and those types of things," said Gunter.

Dolores Mabe, military spouse and ACS volunteer, was among the spouses to meet with Mason. As a spouse of 18 years, she said it's comforting to see that senior leadership cares enough about their Soldiers and family members to discuss the issues they face from the ground up.

"It's great," she said. "It definitely shows that there is some buy-in from higher up to try to fix the problem lower on the ground."

One of the main issues Mabe said facing AER is that many Soldiers believe there is a stigma attached to getting assistance through the program, which can deter someone in genuine hardship from seeking help.

"I had one family I worked with in my last job and they needed some financial assistance, but wouldn't go through AER because they were fearful of any repercussions through their unit," she said. "To me, it was more of an education issue that they didn't know that they don't come with those kinds of ramifications.

"In the last 18 years of doing this with my Soldier, the big thing is making sure that spouses and families know how to get help when they need it," she continued. "If that's financial help (they need), then AER is the way to go."

Mason also took the opportunity to meet with company commanders and first sergeants to discuss the commanders' referral program, whereby company commanders and first sergeants have the approval authority to grant assistance of up to $2,000 for a Soldier in financial hardship, said Gunter. He then met with sergeants and staff sergeants who have close working relationships with junior-enlisted Soldiers.

"They have a lot of experience in the military working closely with Soldiers and some may have utilized AER also, so by meeting with them, (Mason) could find out if we're getting the information down to the unit level and if we're reaching out to the Soldiers to see if they're aware of (the program) and not to feel a stigma to come to AER to request assistance," said the financial counselor. "We have to ask, 'How can we overcome that stigma?' because we do want to be that first choice rather than have them utilizing lenders that may be putting a Soldier in greater financial hardship rather than helping them out."

Keeping Soldiers from seeking off-post lending agencies that could potentially put them in greater hardship is one of the main goals of the program, said Mason.

"One of the things that we're battling across the force is what we call predatory lending agencies," said the AER director. "Unfortunately, many of these are right off post as you go off of military installations … and some of these folks are actually preying on our Soldiers and our family members."

Through these predatory lenders, Mason said oftentimes Soldiers end up paying between 300- to 500-percent annual percentage rates, and nearly 50 percent of Soldiers ranked E-4 and below have visited an off-post lender at least once.

"Whatever we can do to educate the force, which is what my battle buddy, Charles Durr, (and I) do -- we travel around and do a sensing session with E-4s and below, and we'll talk to them about that," he said. "This whole financial education side is critical to the readiness of our Army and the Soldiers."

AER exists to help Soldiers and their family members in emergency situations, but Gunter said sometimes Soldiers aren't aware that their hardship might constitute an emergency that they AER can assist with.

"What do you consider an emergency?" asked the financial counselor. "Emergency travel is our primary assistance program that is utilized, but vehicle repairs constitute an emergency because you're putting yourself into financial hardship because that unexpected vehicle repair occurred.

"The definition of how broad an emergency is where we need to look at it," she said. "It needs to be looked at as an unexpected hardship -- that's an emergency."