FORT GORDON, Ga., (March 3, 2017) -- It happened years ago, but Spc. Candace Johnson vividly remembers the incident like it was yesterday. She awoke one morning to discover the front door open and her autistic son nowhere in sight. Living at Fort Drum, New York, at the time, Johnson and her husband found him outside in nearly four feet of snow.

"That's when I reached my breaking point," said Johnson, B Company, 551st Signal Battalion.

"I knew something more had to be done."

Johnson's husband reached out to his unit's leadership for help, and they suggested he contact Army Emergency Relief.

Fort Gordon Army Community Service held its 2017 AER Campaign kickoff Feb. 23 at Gordon's Conference and Catering Center. The annual kickoff is a way for the organization to increase awareness of AER while giving beneficiaries like Johnson an opportunity to share their story of how the program made a personal impact.

Thanks in part to AER, Johnson's son received Gunner, a service dog, to help ensure he would never be left alone in another dangerous situation.

"Gunner now will either keep Riley from going outside, or he'll alert us by barking or coming to get us," Johnson said.

AER is a private nonprofit organization committed to helping Soldiers and their families by providing emergency financial assistance in the form of interest free loans and grants.

Funding comes from voluntary donations, repayment of AER loans, and investment income.

Since its establishment in 1942, the nonprofit has provided more than $1.7 billion to 3.7 million Soldiers and their families. In 2016, AER assisted 36,000-plus Soldiers and families with more than $54 million.

Locally, 659 Fort Gordon service members and families received nearly $900,000 of financial assistance in 2016.

"What this organization does and has done for us -- our Soldiers and families -- is frankly phenomenal," said Col. Todd Turner, Fort Gordon garrison commander.

AER is widely known for granting financial assistance during emergency travel, but there are other categories of assistance including health care expenses, funeral expenses, rent or mortgage, major appliance replacement or repair, child car seats, and utilities. Like most programs, AER faces challenges that may result in service members not getting the assistance they need.

One of the challenges is making sure service members are properly educated on the program.

Col. (Ret.) Eldon Mullis, AER Headquarters deputy director, said there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding AER he is relying on leadership to help dispel.

A recent survey conducted by Defense Manpower Data Center shows 33 percent of those surveyed believed they risk losing their security clearance if they go to AER. Thirty percent believed it would hurt their ability to get promoted, and 15 percent believed they would receive non-judicial punishment.

"Leadership is a key function to making AER work, both from the side of knowing their Soldiers and ensuring that the Soldiers know they can have access to AER," Mullis said.

The other challenge is getting service members to realize they are assisting fellow service members with every dollar they donate to AER.

"Everything is done from donations, so it's important that there's a campaign and that the leadership supports the campaign,"

Mullis said.

Last year, Fort Gordon raised approximately $99,000.

"If you think about what our donation actually is, it's only about 10 to 15 percent of what they gave back to us, and we want to change that dynamic," Turner said.

This year's goal is to raise at least $100,000.

While the AER's main emphasis is emergency relief, Turner reminded the community AER also awards scholarships for those pursuing higher education. Last year, 17 Fort Gordon military spouses received more than $27,000, and 64 children were awarded $145,000 total through the AER Scholarship Program.

"AER truly is about taking care of its Soldiers and their families," Turner said.

Anyone can donate by check, cash, or credit card. Active duty Soldiers and retired Army can choose to set up an allotment. Donations can also be made on the AER website.

To make a donation, service members should see their unit project officer or go to www.aerhq.org