FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Feb. 20, 2019) -- The Army Emergency Relief program is all about Soldiers helping Soldiers, and AER representatives from across the 10th Mountain Division (LI) met Feb. 19 to help kick off the annual campaign at Fort Drum.

Since 1942, AER has provided more than $1.7 billion in assistance to more than 3.7 million Soldiers and their families - through interest-free loans and grants, or a combination of both.

In 2017, AER administered $69.7 million of assistance, to include scholarship awards. At Fort Drum, the AER staff processed more than 1,300 cases that provided nearly $1.7 million in assistance last year.

Michael Ferguson, AER specialist with Fort Drum Army Community Service, said that while this is a fundraising campaign - with a goal of $150,000 - the focus is more on communicating how AER can assist in times of valid emergency need.

"First and foremost, it's about education," Ferguson said. "It's all about informing Soldiers. We want our Soldiers and the family members to know about our program so they don't struggle unnecessarily."

Ferguson explained the different approved categories of assistance that include medical, funeral and emergency travel expenses, minor home repairs and purchase/repair of basic home essentials.

AER does not assist with nonessential purchases, financing ordinary leave or travel, paying fines or legal expenses, debt liquidation, vehicle loan financing or home purchases.

Changes to assistance categories in 2019 include:

*New grant assistance for passport, immigration and visa fees for dependents;

*Additional assistance with dental care for dependents;

*Special needs assistance, particularly on equipment not covered (or partially covered) by TRICARE or other insurance;

*Additional grants for cranial helmets and child car seats.

Ferguson also spoke about access to AER assistance and how the self-referral process allows eligible service members in the rank of E-1 to E-4 to apply without command involvement. Also, the quick assist process gives company commanders and first sergeants the authority to approve Soldier loans up to $2,000.

"The bottom line is that we don't want our Soldiers ever relying on predatory lenders," Ferguson said. "It's unfortunate, but we see so many people who come to us with those multitude of loans ... and there's almost no way for them to get out from underneath those, so they shouldn't be going to them in the first place."

Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Johnson, 10th Mountain Division (LI) deputy senior enlisted adviser, said that there was a time when circumstances found him without pay for a two-month period when he was accidently dropped from the pay system. Johnson said that having an interest-free AER loan saved him from a lot of stress and worry about how to take care of his family.

"Soldiers taking care of Soldiers, that's what AER does," he said. "Today, we are kicking off this campaign, and it's an opportunity for our Soldiers to look out for each other, just as those who made donations - back in the day - took care of me."

The AER campaign coordinators for the 10th Mountain Division are Maj. Andrzej Kujawski and Sgt. 1st Class William Sherlin.

To learn more about AER, visit www.aerhq.org, contact the Fort Drum Financial Readiness Program at (315) 772-5196 or visit www.facebook.com/FortDrumArmyEmergencyRelief/.