By Michael StrasserApril 6, 2018
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (April 6, 2018) -- Retired Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason, Army Emergency Relief director, and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Durr, AER chief of assistance, visited Fort Drum on April 3 to meet with Soldiers and key leaders to talk about this year's AER campaign and learn what Fort Drum community members think about the program.
Many people might think a fundraiser is all about collecting contributions, but Mason said that the focus on the 2018 AER campaign is really about communication. He said that the goal is "100 percent inform" - which means going beyond contacting every Soldier on post but also having a conversation about how AER works and its benefits to servicemembers.
"It takes longer, but it will have more value," Mason said. "Donations are still important, but that's not what our goal is right now. Our biggest challenge in AER is communicating with the force about what our programs are and that is why we went to 100 percent inform."
When Mason became director last year, he learned things about AER that he didn't know during his 35 years in the Army. Now, when he travels to installations to discuss the program he said that he is interested to learn what Soldiers don't know about AER and provide them that information to share with their colleagues.
He said that AER exists to relieve financial distress on the force and that has been its mission for 76 years.
"The reason for that is if Soldiers are consumed with any other issue other than their MOS (military occupational specialty), their unit training and their combat training, then they are not as effective as they could be," Mason said. "In fact, if they go into combat, and they have all these issues back home, they are a danger to themselves and they are a danger to their brothers and sisters on the battlefield."
"Ultimately, AER is about combat readiness," Mason added. "It's trying to get Soldiers and their Families back on solid footing financially so they can focus on their mission."
He said that less than 1 percent of financial assistance requests are denied, and that 88 percent of Soldiers who sought help from AER last year required assistance only one time. Most AER cases involve basic living expenses and emergency repairs on vehicles. Mason said that AER won't pay for marriages, divorces, consolidated debt loans, legal fees or speeding tickets.
"Ninety-nine percent of the Soldiers are going to get help. It might not be exactly what they want, but it's probably what they need," Mason said.
All emergency leave assistance starts at a 50 percent zero interest loan and a 50 percent grant. That could increase to a 100 percent grant depending on the case.
"Emergency leave assistance is the single most important thing we do, without a doubt," he said. "Every Soldier should know that when they join the Army and if there is an illness or death in the Family, we're going to get them home."
Mason said that AER is more than just assisting with emergency leave. Last year, 84 Fort Drum community members received about $200,000 in AER educational scholarships. Mason said that the average award is between $3,000 and $3,500, and it is purely needs-based and not dependent on scholastic test scores or grade point averages. AER provides roughly $8 million in grants for scholarships to spouses and children every year.
There are more than 20 categories of financial assistance that AER provides, to include initial household goods, dental care for dependents and child care seats.
"There is so much more that we do," Mason said. "Whatever your Soldiers needs are, we will take a look at."
Brig. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum acting commander, welcomed the AER team to Fort Drum and touted the program where "Soldiers are helping Soldiers." He said that $1.8 billion was distributed to 3.7 million servicemembers since the program began in 1942. In fact, more than $1 billion provided since 9/11, Donahoe said.
"From a $14 million investment in the early '40s, they were able to give over a billion dollars in the past 17 years," he said. "This is an Army program, and these are our Soldiers getting help."
Fort Drum Soldiers and Family Members benefited from more than $1.5 million in AER assistance last year, to include roughly $54,000 in grants.
Mason also spoke about a quick assist program that authorizes company commanders and first sergeants to approve loans up to $2,000 for any valid need. He said it is a powerful tool for those leaders to have.
"Here's a program where, in a short amount of time, you can get that Soldier and their Family back on the right path," he said. "You might not be able to solve the whole issue, but you're going to help."
There is also a direct access option that allows Soldiers to request AER assistance without notifying their chain of command. Mason said that this was introduced because of the stigma associated with asking for help, which some perceive as a sign of weakness. It also gives Soldiers a better option than going to a payday loan establishment that can charge up to 300 percent interest.
"Almost everywhere we go in the Army, we hear from Soldiers that this is both good and bad," Mason said. "Soldiers should come to their chain of command - it is the first place they should go - but Soldiers will go to these lenders over and over again."
"The problem is that some of our Soldiers and their Families feel they are in such straits that they've got to do that," Donahoe said. "We want our Soldiers utilizing AER, and not going out there an enriching some predatory lender."
Mason said that direct access is not available during a Soldier's first year in service, but they can still request AER assistance. Mason said that some Soldiers who select the direct access option will be referred back to their chain of command because they are deemed "high risk." Michael Ferguson, Fort Drum AER specialist, said that common high risk behaviors are vetted during the interview with the Soldier, and can be anything from a previous loan default or bankruptcy.
"It's usually budgetary in nature," Ferguson said. "Some Soldiers need financial training as much as they need financial assistance."
The Fort Drum AER office is located at Bldg. 435A on MWR Drive. For more information, call (315) 772-6560 or 772-6555.
The AER fundraising campaign started March 1 and runs through May 31. In 2017, Fort Drum community members contributed $162,000 to the AER campaign. To learn more about the AER campaign at Fort Drum, call (315) 772-6560 or follow www.facebook.com/FortDrumArmyEmergencyRelief/ on Facebook.