FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Mar. 8, 2012) -- Representatives from units across Fort Rucker gathered at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum to kick off the annual Army Emergency Relief campaign Feb. 29.

The theme of this year's campaign is "A strong tradition of Soldiers helping Soldiers."

The primary goal of the annual campaign is to raise awareness of how AER helps Soldiers and their Families.

AER is not as effective as it can be if Soldiers do not know how to take advantage of the program or appreciate its importance, according to 1st Sgt. George Webster, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 164th Theater Airfield Operations Group.

"I remember when I was a young Soldier. I was standing in formation when our squad leader came to us and said we all needed to donate to AER. At the time, I wasn't sure what the organization was, but I gave money because my NCO asked me to," said Webster.

By the time Webster was a first sergeant, though, he had learned the importance of AER and what it can do to help Soldiers and their Families.

"Regardless of what we do as leaders, Soldiers sometimes have financial problems," said Webster.

"Whenever Soldiers have these problems, they're going to have choices. They can choose to go to a payday loan establishment where they are going to pay an extremely high interest rate. They can go to a pawn shop, but they risk losing their possessions. Or, Soldiers can use the information given to them by their leadership and seek assistance from AER," said Webster. "This is why it is important that all Soldiers understand how AER works so that they know where to turn if they need help."

AER provides emergency financial assistance in the form of no-interest loans or grants to Soldiers, Families and retirees. Additionally, AER provides scholarships to children and spouses of active duty and retired Soldiers as well as financial support to widows and wounded warriors.

In 2011, AER provided $77.5 million in assistance to more than 64,000 Soldiers and their Families.

Beginning in 2012, AER has added four new categories of assistance, including Family member dental care, basic furniture needs, rental vehicles and replacement vehicles.

Webster also encouraged leaders to let Soldiers know that getting assistance from AER is not a difficult process and highlighted the commander's referral program.

"I've heard Soldiers say that getting an AER loan is too difficult. I was even told by a Soldier that the amount of paperwork involved is too much. The truth is that it could not be any easier, especially when it comes to the commander's referral program" said Webster. "The commander's referral program gives commanders and first sergeants the ability to provide $1,500 worth of assistance to their Soldiers with a simple signature.

"The process is simple. An NCO comes to me with a Soldier that has a financial need. As soon as we determine that AER is the best fit for their problem, we fill out an AER form and get that Soldier an appointment [with the local AER office]. Within 10-15 minutes, that Soldier can get the assistance they need. It could not be any easier," said Webster.

It's important to dispel the rumors that AER assistance is hard to get, said Maj. Gen. Anthony G. Crutchfield, commanding general, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker.

"All of us have testimonies about what AER has done for either ourselves or someone that we've known over the years," said Crutchfield.

"Last year, our AER program helped 235 Families. It gave out over $307,000 in assistance. That's a lot. That is a force multiplier. Our Families, our spouses, our Soldiers, our retirees all benefited from that and it only came through the generosity of people like you. For that, I thank you," added Crutchfield.

Col. James A. Muskopf, Fort Rucker garrison commander and AER campaign chairman, was also on hand to highlight some of the events planned for this year's campaign.

"Our highly anticipated annual golf tournament at the Silver Wings golf course, which every year results in a huge contribution to the community, will be on April 20," said Muskopf.

"May 17 is our annual Jail-A-Thon, which is always a lot of fun and is a great effort by our MPs to generate additional revenue for the AER campaign," he added.

"Last year, the Fort Rucker community raised $121,000 for the AER program and this year we are going to beat that," said Muskopf.