By David W. Kuhns Sr.February 27, 2009
FORT LEWIS, Wash - For more than 60 years, Army Emergency Relief has been the primary way Soldiers have been able to help other Soldiers. I will never understand why there are people who can't accept a good thing when they see it.
The Army's fund to help Soldiers was established in 1942. Since then, its only goal has been to help Soldiers and their families in time of need.
AER help is available to a far larger population than many Soldiers probably realize. The list of those eligible to receive assistance includes Soldiers on extended active duty and their dependents, as you would expect. But it is also available to members of the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve on continuous active duty for more than 30 days and their dependents, to Army retirees and their dependents, even to widows and orphans of Soldiers who died while on active duty or after they retired.
But you have probably all heard one of your co-workers rant about how they don't support AER because they heard of someone who didn't get help when he needed it. Those who condemn AER always seem to be passionate in their beliefs. They are like atheists talking about religion - not content to just hold their beliefs, but driven to tear down anyone who doesn't completely agree with their point of view.
Having long since earned the label of "old timer" around the Army, I have heard hundreds of those accounts of AER shortcomings. Most of them just don't hold water.
Many of the instances of AER failing to provide help end up being examples of Soldiers for a quick way to beat the consequences of bad financial decisions. AER is not there to consolidate your debts or pay off your overextended credit cards. It is a source of emergency help to pay for food, rent or utilities. It can help you with emergency transportation or vehicle repairs. It can pay for funeral expenses. AER can even help with undergraduate-level scholarships, based primarily on financial need.
I know that some of the complaints about AER I have heard have been true. But, in my experience, they have always been the case of mistakes at the local level - a commander or AER administrator who misunderstood policies or the situation and made an honest mistake.
Others who complain about AER do so out of resentment over perceived pressure to contribute. Recent media reports have repeated allegations of forced contributions and improper incentives being offered.
There was a time when that sort of thing was common, but it was long before current Soldiers enlisted - heck, it was before most of them were born.
I well remember standing outside in formation in Alaska, with the temperature at minus 40, and the first sergeant growling that we would stand there until he had 100 percent participation. But that was 1977. Coercion of any kind has been forbidden for more than 30 years. The goal of every AER campaign is to contact everyone in the Army family, to give everyone an opportunity to participate.
Even the Army newspapers have to adhere to the policies - to refrain from so much as a comparison of the amounts contributed by units, because a perceived competition might be felt as command influence.
You can always find those who will pick at any good institution, I suppose. But over the last 67 years AER has helped hundreds of thousands of Soldiers and families when they faced rough times through no fault of their own. Those are facts nobody can argue with.
David W. Kuhns Sr. is editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.