FORT RUCKER, Ala. (March 6, 2014) -- Soldiers can always be counted on to be self reliant, but sometimes it's necessary to ask for help, especially during emergencies and hard times.

So, to ensure Soldiers can help Soldiers when the need arises, Army Emergency Relief kicked off its annual fundraising campaign March 4 at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum.

The campaign runs through May 15 with the theme "A Soldiers' First Choice," and Maj. Anthony Whittaker, Fort Rucker AER campaign coordinator, asked for people to just donate a little, so it can help someone who really needs it.

"When unpleasant surprises hit us, it is nice knowing there is an organization that Soldiers can go to," he said. "AER has been around for 72 years … and during that time we have helped 3.5 million Soldiers, retirees and their Family members by giving out $1.6 billion. And every one of those dollars came from donations."

Last year, Fort Rucker AER gave out $400,000 worth of assistance to 200 Families, and according to Col. Stuart J. McRae, garrison commander, last year the installation raised just over $140,000, but got back (more than) $405,000 in loans, grants and scholarships.

"If each of our Soldiers gave ($30), that would amount to $225,000, and we can all see the benefit of this investment," he said. "Now, company commanders can give up to $1,500 for Soldiers who come to them, and at the garrison level, commanders can give up to $3,500. That can really help Soldiers and we are proud to accomplish that."

AER funds are available to Soldiers who need it in a variety of ways, such as helping with household bills, emergency travel, car expenses, medical bills, and funeral and birth costs, according to Whittaker.

"The biggest message we want to send out … is that we want for (Soldiers) to come to Army Community Service when they have a financial need or dire emergency," he said. "We'd rather have them come to us than search out predatory lenders, many of which have hidden fees and enormous annual percentage rates. We need them to know that we're here for them -- we need to be their first choice."

AER will take all the means necessary to assist with and alleviate the stress of financial burdens, said Whittaker.

McRae agreed with Whittaker, and urged Soldiers to stay away from payday lenders.

"Let's be honest, with over 500,000 Soldiers all serving active duty, 84 percent of them are under the age of 25," he began. "We have all seen where these Soldiers have sometimes made dumb financial decisions. And sometimes these Soldiers go to what appears to be a convenient way out in the guise of a payday lender. And before long, a $500 loan … ends up getting them into a death spiral that they cannot get out of where they end up owing thousands of dollars in the end.

"I feel pretty confident that if I picked out any of our sergeants major here today, they could each recall a story where in their early career they went down a wrong path, and a leader pulled them out and set them up for success," McRae continued. "Each of us (senior leaders), with the help of AER, can also be that mentor for a young Soldier who makes a wrong decision. I have seen what AER has done for Soldiers first hand for many years, and it is great."

Soldiers needing AER financial assistance can contact their unit chain of command or go directly to Fort Rucker's AER office in Bldg. 5700.

For more information, or to donate, call 255-2341.