FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- When it comes to Soldiers helping Soldiers, the director of Army Emergency Relief considers Fort Rucker a model installation.

Retired Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason visited Fort Rucker Aug. 19 to meet with Soldiers, leadership and service organizations on post for some two-way communications on what the program gets right and what it needs to improve, and also to let people know about the latest news concerning the organization.

"Fort Rucker's an incredible place," Mason said. "The program here is very powerful, and that has a lot to do with Beth Gunter (local AER officer) and the team: support from leadership, the garrison commander, the garrison command sergeant major, the commanding general and (the Aviation Branch) sergeant major -- all up and down the chain.

"Really, Fort Rucker leads the Army in many ways in all aspects of AER -- the use of it, donations, scholarships, the overall health of the program," he continued. "Frankly, I look at Fort Rucker as a model and as a best business practice -- I'm really happy to come here."

During his visit, he met with Directorate of Family, and Morale Welfare and Recreation officials; garrison and U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence leadership; chaplaincy, school and Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers officials; brigade commanders; company commanders and first sergeants; and a Soldier focus group.

And the visit proved invaluable to the AER director.

"I spend about two weeks of every month on the road somewhere in the Army visiting Soldiers and talking with great NCOs like I did today," Mason said. "I give them a little bit of information about AER, and what's really powerful about it is they give us feedback. How's it going, what do we need to work on, what are they happy with and what do they think needs to change?

"Over the past 2 � years, a lot of the categories of assistance that we've either added, changed or enhanced has been based on the feedback we've received from Soldiers, leaders and spouses in the communities," he added. "These visits are absolutely critical and they give us the pulse of what's going on."

Above and beyond the concept of Soldiers helping Soldiers, one of AER's biggest selling points as a charity to donate to, is its efficiency, said the director, noting that almost 90 cents of every dollar given to the organization goes directly to helping Soldiers, family members and retirees.

"One of the ratings that non-profits get is how much of their dollar goes back to the need, and how much gets consumed in overhead and administrative costs," Mason said. "We have one of the highest ratings of any non-profit in the U.S. -- we're very proud of that."

Fort Rucker certainly get is its fair share of assistance, as the director said that local Soldiers and family members received about $230,000 last year in loans, another $45,000 in grants and $170,000 in scholarships.

And that's all to the good, he said, adding that Fort Rucker does an excellent job of educating its community on the program.

"If you're facing a financial challenge, asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness," Mason said. "When in doubt, come to AER. Come see Beth and the team, we'll sit down and talk through what you're situation is -- we turn away less than 2 percent of the people who come through AER. We're all about getting to 'yes.'"

That understanding of AER amongst Fort Rucker Soldiers helped liven the discussion during the focus group, the director said.

"They had good questions about how do we figure out the right way to support a Soldier, how do we ensure we're doing the right thing by the Army and the dollars people have donated," Mason said. "They understand that we're always trying to balance between the needs of the Soldier and the needs of the Army, and being good stewards of the dollars that have been donated to us. There wasn't a lot of unknowns out there, but they really gave us feedback that we're pretty much in that sweet spot."

Yet challenges remain, he admitted.

"The Soldiers we met with recognize that off post there are a lot of folks and organizations out there who are predatory lenders -- a threat. Soldiers use these things, unfortunately, and they recognize that and they know that in AER there is a much better alternative -- no-interest loans," Mason said. "They know that challenge is out there.

"They also know that there are still Soldiers out there who don't know everything they need to know about AER," he added. "I think a lot of them took that on today, so when they go back to their units they will work to better inform their Soldiers about all of the different programs and benefits of AER."