JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - The 2016 Army Emergency Relief (AER) Campaign is underway, with Army leadership raising awareness of the benefits of the financial assistance program and giving Soldiers the opportunity to donate.

Running from March 1 to May 15, the Army-wide campaign raises funds for AER, a private nonprofit organization that provides emergency financial relief to Soldiers, active and retired, and their families in times of need.

AER gets the majority of its funding from voluntary donations by Soldiers and civilians, as well as repayment of AER interest-free loans and investment income, according to the organization's website.

Since it was established in 1942, AER has provided more than $1.7 billion to 3.7 million Soldiers and their families.

In 2014, AER assisted 51,000 Soldiers and their families across the nation with $73 million. In 2015, more than $70 million in interest-free loans and grants were distributed to more than 48,000 Soldiers and families.

But in a letter to kick off the 2016 campaign, Army leaders noted that the number of Soldiers donating to AER has declined 40 percent. In light of that decrease, leaders are urging commands to re-emphasize their fundraising efforts.

Trina Reliford, AER officer and accredited financial counselor with Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Army Community Service, said it's important for Soldiers to be aware of the program and to consider donating.

"The donations go directly into helping Soldiers and their families during their financial hardship," she told the Pentagram.

According to Reliford, the joint base raised $131,854 in AER donations in 2014 and $141,086 in 2015.

In past years, JBM-HH AER had set fundraising goals for the annual campaign, Reliford said. In 2014, for instance, the local AER program set a goal of $125,000 in donations and ended up exceeding that amount.

But there are no goals for the 2015 and 2016 campaigns. Instead, Reliford and joint base leaders are focusing on getting the word out and getting donations through awareness.

"We're trying to get 100 percent solicitation so that we can educate the community on AER campaign donations," she said. "Our focus is on 100 percent contact and awareness."

Reliford noted that AER is not allowed to solicit donations from civilians.

"If they see the information around, they can say, 'Oh I'd like to donate,'" she said. "But we can't just walk up to a civilian and ask them to donate."

For the most part, the joint base community is aware of the annual AER fundraising campaign and the many benefits of the program, Reliford said.

"They're mostly aware," she said. "During the campaign, each unit has coordinators and key-workers that go through their areas and give out information on the campaign."

JBM-HH AER distributed $188,285 in emergency financial assistance in 2014 and another $172,193 in 2015.

AER financial assistance can be used for rent and mortgage payments, utilities, food, medical costs, relocation, funeral expenses and much more.

Reliford encouraged Soldiers to contact AER if they are ever in need.

"A lot of people have their pride," she said. "But once they find out that the service is there, they feel comfortable coming and using it. Other people have said that they weren't aware the service was there."

For more information about AER Soldiers should contact their local AER officer or visit www.aerhq.org/dnn563/Home.aspx.

To make a donation to AER, visit www.aerhq.org/dnn563/Donations.aspx.