FORT HOOD, Texas - Talking to leaders, Soldiers and family members, retired Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, director, Army Emergency Relief, visited the installation here to not only inform them of the latest programs and initiatives, but, “more importantly, to listen to the field so that AER can better assist Soldiers and their families at Fort Hood.”
“AER is really about combat readiness,” Mason said during his three-day visit, June 22-24. “If a Soldier and his family is distracted by something in their life—in many cases it’s their finances—that Soldier is probably not focused on his or her MOS (military occupational specialty) training, not focused on the unit mission, and if we send them into combat, they’re distracted, and therefore potentially a danger to themselves and their buddies on their left and their right.
“We want Soldiers to go into combat laser-focused, complete their mission and come home safely to their loved ones,” he said. “That’s mission success. AER is just one little piece of that, trying to minimize that distraction.”
Established in 1942, AER is a private, nonprofit organization created to help Soldiers and their family members through financial emergencies, including providing funds for rent, utilities, emergency travel, etc. It also provides emergency funds to Soldiers’ orphans and surviving spouses and offers undergraduate scholarships to spouses and children of both active and retired Soldiers.
Today, AER has assisted more than 4 million Soldiers and family members with more than $2 billion in financial assistance, including $1 billion since 9/11.
Last year alone, AER provided $44.8 million in loans and grants to almost 26,000 Soldiers and their families.
During his visit, Mason conducted a whole series of focus groups, i.e., E-4s and below, mid-grade NCOs, senior NCOs, company commanders and first sergeants, including spouses’ luncheons, office calls with senior leaders … again, just to provide information, but more importantly, to listen to the field.
“We’re out here where the rubber meets the road, the tip of the spear, Fort Hood, home of the Phantom Corps-hearing from them-what are their concerns- where can we help them assist these great Soldiers that are serving our nation,” he said.
Mason added that one chief concern coming out of the Fort Hood visit was not a surprise—rent and rent deposits.
He said Soldiers must understand that AER is here to try to help them get over that hump, especially when they PCS in or PCS out.
“We can’t solve all their problems. We’re not a silver bullet, but we can smooth out some of those rough edges that Soldiers and Army families face every day,” the general said. “It’s a two-way communication.”
Mason said car repairs and emergency travel, especially for emergency leave is also a chief concern here.
“Emergency travel is probably the most important thing we do for the Soldier or his or her spouse,” he said. “Especially during a serious illness, or God forbid, a death in their immediate family, i.e., mom, dad, brother or sister, and they need to get back home, be there at the bedside and give comfort to their family.
“PCS time is also when a lot of stress occurs,” he added. “AER has a lot of PCS programs to help – that’s the kind of things we’re seeing at Fort Hood.”
So, who’s eligible?
Mason states all active-duty Soldiers, Army families, retired Soldiers and their families, medically retired, survivors, Active Guard Reserve or AGR Soldiers, and Reserve and National Guard Soldiers if they’re on active-duty Title 10 orders are eligible for AER.
“And we don’t care what rank you are, private to general,” he said.
“Asking for help is a sign of strength – people come into the Army – hey you can make it – you can stand on your own two feet – those are all true, but life happens,” Mason explained. “Sometimes you just make an unwise decision—I’ve made plenty in my life—so you get into a tough spot. We don’t want you to go off post to some payday lender, we want you to come to AER. That payday lender can wind up charging you 20, 40 even a 300% annual percentage rate. Ours is zero.”
Throughout his tour, the general lauded Fort Hood’s leading the Army in what’s called the Quick Assist Program. About 65% of all cases today are handled by commanders and first sergeants at the installation level.
“That’s the best in the Army,” he said. “That’s where any company commander and first sergeant can approve a loan up $2,000 with their signature, and you guys are knocking it out of the park here at Fort Hood.
“That tells me Soldiers want to go to their chain of command – and that’s huge,” Mason remarked. “So many problems get solved through that program, not just financial problems but every day-to-day problems and challenges.
“My hat goes off to the company commanders and first sergeants for using it," he said, "and for Soldiers going to their chain of command. Nothing is more important than that."