AER takes fear, stress out of asking for help

A man in a blue shirt talks to a room of U.S. Army Soldiers sitting at tables.

Angie Thorne | Fort Polk Public Affairs Office | Sept. 12, 2022

FORT POLK, La. — Life is good. Everything is rolling right along, but then something goes wrong. For instance, the car breaks down, there’s an emergency at home or any number of other scenarios. Whatever the case may be, the end result means potentially navigating a difficult financial situation.

What many Soldiers and Family members don’t realize is when the unexpected happens, they don’t have to face those challenges alone. Army Emergency Relief is in their corner.

AER is the Army’s official nonprofit. For 80 years they have helped the Army take care of its number one priority — its people. It’s mission is to provide grants, interest-free loans and scholarships to promote readiness and relieve the financial distress of Soldiers and their Families.

There are more than 30 AER assistance categories. They include permanent change of station travel, spouse relicensing and recertification fees, tutoring assistance, rent, mortgage, food and utility assistance, emergency travel, disaster assistance and more.

Other AER programs include the Quick Fix Program (an interest-free $2,000 loan), scholarships (financial aid for spouses and children of active duty and retired Soldiers), Career Skills Program Assistance (a grant program for retiring and separating Soldiers to participate in apprenticeships and on the job training) and more.

Find out about these and other AER programs.

Getting the word out about AER to those who need it most is one of the focuses of retired Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, AER director.

Mason and his team visited Fort Polk Aug. 22-24. While there, they talked with Fort Polk command and directors across the installation, spearheaded focus groups with Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers, garrison and unit chaplains, spouses, company commanders, noncommissioned officers and junior Soldiers and connected with Fort Polk’s Army Community Service director and Financial Readiness and AER staff.

AER is all about resiliency and combat readiness, Mason said.

“It’s about helping a Soldier or Army Family get through the financial distractions in their lives so they can focus on their mission,” Mason said. “We want Soldiers to go into battle laser focused, complete the mission and come home safely to their loved ones. If they are downrange thinking about rent and car notes not getting paid or if there’s enough food on the table, they could miss something important and put themselves and others in danger.”

Mason said one of the things that keeps him up at night is knowing there’s probably a Soldier or Army Family hurting because they don’t know about AER or reluctant to participate in the program due to the stigma of asking for help, pride or a feeling of failure.

“What Soldiers have to realize is asking for help is a sign of strength,” Mason said. “It also doesn’t matter what rank you are. Whether you are a private or general you can come to AER.”
When Soldiers don’t get help from AER, they sometimes choose to go off post to a predatory lender.

“That is the biggest threat to our financial and combat readiness in the Army and at Fort Polk,” Mason said. “Preventing that is one of the reasons my team spends one to two weeks of each month on the road to communicate in person about AER. That may not be the most efficient way to go about getting the word out, but it’s the most effective. Nothing is more powerful to AER than unit leadership at the company level. It’s a tool in the toolbox to help them deal with the things that happen when life throws you a curve. We are there to help them along the way and, hopefully, address the problem and get them back into the fight.”

To get an AER loan, grant or scholarship, Soldiers and Family members don’t have to get the financial counseling offered by ACS, but it’s highly recommended.

“The financial counseling is about getting to the root of the issue. Are you living beyond your means? Are you spending more than you should? Are you buying a car with a price tag three times higher than you can afford? We have all been in that situation at some point,” Mason said. “Financial counseling gives you a chance to look at your financial situation and have someone who knows how to help guiding you along.”

Mason has been with AER for five years and traveled extensively.

“While there are a lot of great installations out there, I will tell you Fort Polk is among the best I’ve ever seen in terms of participation in meetings and discussions,” Mason said. “I attended a spouses lunch with the most spouses I’ve ever had participate in an event like that.”

Fort Polk’s large participation numbers in focus groups also impressed Mason.

“Discussions with Fort Polk command and brigade commanders and sergeant majors isn’t something that always happens,” Mason said. “When we get a chance to talk to these Army leaders about AER and answer any questions they may have, it’s a good thing. They mentor down into the company level. AER lives at the company level.”

The purpose of the many focus group discussions held in the time Mason and his team were at Fort Polk were to engage their audience in a two-fold process.

“We are able to communicate to them things that are going on in AER, how it operates and how to help their Soldiers, but we can equally hear from them what they are seeing with their Soldiers and adjust programs to meet those needs here at Fort Polk,” Mason said.

Mason said as far as his visit is concerned, the ACS and AER teams, along with Fort Polk leadership from top to bottom hit it out of the park.

As for Fort Polk’s AER program, Katie R. Davis, ACS AER Specialist, said the Fort Polk AER program provides its military community with a compassionate and dedicated organization that assists Soldiers with needs to relieve financial distress without causing a hardship.

“At Fort Polk, the top five categories of assistance that we provide are privately owned vehicle expenses, emergency travel, utilities, housing and food,” Davis said. “We have assisted 195 active duty Soldiers, retirees and Family members with $136,551.69 in those five categories alone.”

Mason said AER assists Fort Polk each year with hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It ebbs and flows, but we probably average around half a million dollars in loans, grants and scholarships.” Mason said. “Whatever you are dealing with, come to AER. We have great counselors to support you.”

The Fort Polk AER office and entire ACS staff actively work to get information about AER programs to the community every week.

“AER is here to assist this military community in times of financial distress.  We will find a way to say yes to verifiable and valid financial needs,” Davis said.

For more information about AER at Fort Polk, call (337) 531-1957.