FORT BUCHANAN, PR- Personnel from the Army Emergency Relief (AER) program in Washington, D.C. traveled to Puerto Rico, Aug 28, to have direct contact with the Soldiers assigned to Army Reserve-Puerto Rico, the largest federal U.S. Army command in the Caribbean.
Retired Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, AER Director, led the team, along with retired Sgt. Maj. Bill Hagzan, AER Assistant Administrator.
"We are here to talk about what went well, in terms of recovery and support during Hurricane Maria, and to learn what we can do to improve the support that AER provides to the great Army team here in Puerto Rico," said Mason in one of the several encounters the AER team had with local Soldiers.
According to Mason, the AER distributed approximately $4 million in assistance in the form of grants to Soldiers in the island, during the emergency created by hurricane Maria last year.
The program, which was incorporated in 1942 with the purpose of collecting and holding funds to relieve distress of members of the Army and their dependents, provides assistance to active duty Soldiers, reserve troops on active duty status for more than 30 days, retired personnel and their families, surviving spouses, and orphans.
"We waived the active duty requirement last year in Puerto Rico, to assist our Soldiers during the hurricane emergency," added Mason, while describing how the organization will do whatever it can to assist Soldiers, based on a valid need.
Staff Sgt. Gustavo Padilla, a Mortuary Affairs Soldier assigned to the 311th Quartermaster Company, was one of the service members that received assistance from the AER program.
"At that moment of crisis, in the middle of the emergency of hurricane Maria, the AER program provided me the assistance that allowed me to buy fuel for generators and replace some damaged furniture and appliances in my house, which was impacted by the winds. It was a great blessing," said Padilla.
Sgt. Elamar Quiñones, a Personnel Administration Specialist assigned to the 271st Human Resources Company, also was among the beneficiaries of the program.
"I was mobilized during the emergency. However, my military pay was delayed. That is when I went to AER and requested their assistance. I received a zero interest loan that allowed me to pay my basic expenses, until my regular military pay kicked off," said Quiñones.
"I think the program works very well. However, I think more Soldiers must know about it," added the Quiñones.
For Spec. Jose Ramos, a Personnel Administration Specialist from the 271st Human Resources Company, the help was good, but the process to receive it was not clear.
"Even though the assistance I received was extremely helpful, the way to obtain it was unclear and difficult, due to the lack of information about the process. We need more information, but other than that, it is a great program," added Ramos.
That is precisely one of the reasons why the AER leadership traveled to the island.
"We want to get our message out to those Soldiers, who don't even realize they are eligible for assistance, such as the large retired community that lives in the island," said Hagzan.
In addition to grants and zero interest loans, the AER program also offers educational assistance to military families.
"Last year we distributed approximately $45 thousand in undergraduate educational scholarships in Puerto Rico. These scholarships are not based on grade point average or Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. This is solely based on economic need," added Mason.
Even though the AER program has an office located at building number 225, in Fort Buchanan, PR, it serves all Soldiers around the island.
Soldiers, retirees and family members who are interested in knowing more about the AER, can contact Edwidg Pedre, Army Emergency Relief Officer at 787-707-3310.