Annual campaign helps Soldiers help themselves through contributions

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii - The 2009 Army Emergency Relief (AER) campaign kicked off March 20 at the Nehelani with a challenge to the more than 30 key leaders, project officers and unit commanders in attendance.

"Help our Soldiers, help themselves," challenged keynote speaker Brig. Gen. John Seward, U.S Army-Pacific, deputy commanding general, emphasizing the important role key leaders play in meeting the $250,000 campaign goal this year.

Seward called on leaders to assist in collecting the voluntary contributions and to educate Soldiers about AER, its services and how to get assistance.

Keeping tabs on the campaign are Jackie Torres, AER officer; Cpt. Francisco Miranda, campaign coordinator; and a team of more than 75 trained unit personnel.

"This year will be a challenge, but with the return of the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team we anticipate exceeding our goal," said Torres.

In support of their effort, former AER recipients shared personal stories, demonstrating the wide range of experiences and need.

Maj. James Tuite, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 25th Infantry Division, explained how AER made a unique opportunity a reality for his 8-year-old daughter, Madelyne, who was born with Ataxic Cerebral Palsy, a non-degenerative form of the disease that affects sense of balance and depth perception.

Last year the family learned about a procedure that has the potential to improve their daughter's condition - a blood transfusion that uses Madelyne's own umbilical cord blood.

The cost of the procedure was "clearly beyond our financial ability to make happen," said Tuite, and he realized they would need help. "We had some pretty tough luck getting assistance, so we called AER."

With AER's assistance, their daughter received the transfusion in December.

"We are eternally grateful for the opportunity. I will speak as many times as needed ... to help this organization continue to help others," he said.

Like many Soldiers and families in need, Tuite's assistance came in the form of interest-free loans and grants.

As a career counselor for eight years, Sgt. 1st Class Monique Green, 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, has seen firsthand how AER can affect Army retention.

"Serious financial situations can affect a Soldier's decision to stay in the Army or move along," Green explained.

Green has escorted more than a few Soldiers to AER for assistance. However, when personally faced with the expense of an unexpected move, it took a fellow counselor to show her the way.

"I thought I was the last person AER would help," she said.

AER is unique, because it is a nonprofit organization that makes it as easy as possible to take care of Soldiers said Col. Matthew Margotta, commander, U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii.

"During my time here, out of the hundreds and hundreds of Soldiers we have taken care of, we have not denied one loan in Hawaii," Margotta said.

AER in Hawaii provided $2.7 million in assistance to Army Soldiers and families in 2008. The command referral program, which gives company commanders and first sergeants authority to approve up to $1,000 in interest-free loans for their Soldiers, provided more than $1.2 million in assistance for rent, emergency travel and privately-owned vehicle (POV) repairs.

In closing, Seward spoke about the annual need to replenish funds and step up to the challenge this year.

"Last year, $315,000 was contributed here in Hawaii, and we should be extremely proud of the generous spirit of our Soldiers," he said.

"AER is the very essence of the idea that the Army takes care of its own."

The annual fundraising drive continues through April 24.