FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Army Emergency Relief kicked off its 2018 campaign season with a ceremony at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum Tuesday with one goal in mind -- Soldiers helping Soldiers.

Last year's campaign raised more than $136,000 on Fort Rucker alone, but Fort Rucker leadership hopes to surpass that number this year to be able to provide more help for Soldiers and families in financial need, according to Beth Gunter, Army Community Service financial counselor and AER officer.

"This has always been special for our Army," said Maj. Gen. William K. Gayler, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker commanding general. "Back in 1942 when AER was founded, people saw the need for Soldiers to help Soldiers through financial hardship.

"Since then, $1.8 billion has been paid out, and that's pretty staggering," said the general. "It's even more staggering because recently we've paid out more and more and more, and that is a good thing, and that's a good thing because that means the word is getting out on what AER is and how good it is for our Army, families and retirees."

During the ceremony, members of the Fort Rucker command group and brigade combat teams came forward to be the first to sign contribution forms to contribute to this campaign season and show their commitment to the program.

On average, AER provides more than $61 million to over 40,000 Soldiers and families annually. On Fort Rucker, more than $551,861 of assistance was provided to Fort Rucker Soldiers, retirees, family members, and surviving spouses and orphans -- $236,499 of which was provided as grants and scholarships, Gunter said.

"AER is a program for Soldiers by Soldiers, and it is this mechanism that allows Soldiers to take care of their own," said Maj. Carl E. Warren, AER campaign coordinator. "It's an invaluable tool for leadership at all levels that helps accomplish one of their most basic command responsibilities -- attending to the morale and welfare of their Soldiers."

Some of that help can come in the form of interest-free loans or grants that can be provided to Soldiers through the Company Commander and First Sergeant Quick Assist Program, or directly through AER.

By providing these types of programs and services, the Army is helping take care of its Soldiers and families by allowing them to come to their chain of command first, rather than seeking outside lenders, many of which can be predatory, leading to further financial hardship.

"In an Army where we say we would never leave a fallen comrade, so why would we ever leave a comrade who is having financial hardship?" asked Gayler. "That's what AER does, and Fort Rucker has been both a generator of funds and also the recipient of funds. We're here to help you … and this is to help you get back on your feet or over a hurdle that allows for you then to produce for yourself."

Another aspect of the program that Col. Brian E. Walsh, Fort Rucker garrison commander and AER campaign chairman, touted was the program's ease of use.

"We all know that Soldiers have unexpected financial challenges, but (the program's) ease of use is a theme that I'd like to add," said Walsh during the ceremony. "First sergeants and commanders can approve a loan for $2,000 at zero-percent interest, preventing predatory lending practices (from outside agencies).

"It doesn't matter your rank, it doesn't matter your command position, or if you're a Soldier talking to other Soldiers about AER, please incorporate (the program's) ease of use," continued the garrison commander. "Help comes for 99 percent of those who come to AER for help, and we want AER to be the Soldier's first choice."