Fort Hood kicks off AER Annual Campaign drive

A U.S. Soldier in uniform stands at a podium and speaks to a group of other uniformed Soldiers.

Story and photos by Kap Kim | Army Emergency Relief | March 2, 2023

FORT HOOD, Texas – Last December, during the week before Christmas, Spc. Mark D. Fernandez, of Apache Troop, 1st “Tiger” Squadron, 3d Cavalry Regiment, got a call from his mother that was different from the other phone calls he usually gets from either her or his six other siblings.

She told him that his father was dying and tried to have Fernandez speak to him one last time, but he passed before he got that last chance. The news was devastating for the tight-knit family.

“We were planning to see them because my family have never seen my son, but it was too expensive; so we put it off. … It was so hard for me because I haven’t seen them in five years,” Fernandez said while holding back tears. “My mother … she’s just going to be by herself, and I know it’s going to be hard for her because, me, I’m here and so far away.”

After his phone call, he immediately started checking airfare to the Philippines, but when he found out that it would cost him, his wife, and his son more than $10,000 to fly during the holiday season, he was left feeling hopeless; however, his unit quickly stepped in after the emergency notification and sent him the Fort Hood Army Emergency Relief Office where he was given enough to cover the entire airfare.

Fernandez and Staff Sgt. Setu Toala, a dental noncommissioned officer with U.S. Army Dental Activities, shared their personal AER stories to the crowd in attendance during III Corps and Fort Hood’s AER Annual Campaign kickoff at post headquarters on Feb. 28.

As the Army’s official nonprofit, its annual fundraising campaign and awareness begins March 1 and runs through May 15 of every year. The III Corps and Fort Hood command team made the first contributions of the year. Last year, Fort Hood’s AER office helped more than 1,700 Soldiers and their Families with more than $3 million in total assistance.

“That aid was possible because of the Soldiers, leaders, Family members and [Department of Army] civilians, right here at Team Hood, donated $78,000 into that pot to help out our teammates,” said Lt. Gen. Sean C. Bernabe, III Corps and Fort Hood’s commanding general. “Our mission is to make sure every single person, here on Fort Hood, understand what AER is and how it can help our Soldiers and their Families.”

Bernabe told those in attendance that his first priority is in taking care of Soldiers, Department of the Army Civilians and their Families and that is exactly what AER is all about: “Soldiers Helping Soldiers.”

“As much as we hate to admit it, life can be tough for some of our Soldiers and their Families – as much as we hate to admit it, sometimes, our Soldiers and Families barely make ends meet,” said Bernabe. “The cost of living is really high right now; that’s the reality. So when something unexpected happens, our Soldiers and Families, all of the sudden, have a really tough time, and that’s where AER comes into play with loans and even grants.”

Bernabe’s charge wasn’t lost on attendees Capt. Nastassia Smith and her first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Hollie Still of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Operational Test Command. Six months into her command, she and her first sergeant have already helped several Soldiers and their Families through AER’s Quick Assist Program for emergency travel and other household-related expenses.

“It’s about taking care of Soldiers and definitely putting their priorities first,” Smith said. “We want them to take care of all their needs so they can focus on the mission at hand.”

For Fernandez, his leadership at 3d Cavalry Regiment acted quickly to get him to an AER officer who then made sure that he had enough to cover airfare for his entire Family. He received both an interest-free loan and grant hybrid for $14,000 and it helped him and his Family be able to make it to his father’s funeral in San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines, on Dec. 24, 2022, and to celebrate Christmas with his mother and siblings and to have them meet his son finally.

“AER helped us – me, my wife and my son – to go back to the Philippines,” Fernandez said. “I am so grateful that AER helped me.”

Like Fernandez, Toala lost a parent unexpectedly last September in his native Samoa, and similarly, he and his Family at Fort Hood tried to figure out how they were all going to all travel there to pay their respects. The last time his three children went to Samoa, they were all very young. The airfare to Samoa was uncomfortably outside their Family’s budget. So, when he went to AER, he was shocked to be given the amount they approved: $16,000 – with half interest-free loan and the other half given as a grant.

“It was so great for my children to know all their Family members like their cousins, uncles, and aunties,” Toala said. “I am so grateful for the AER organization and all the leaders who assisted me – not with just the money, but more importantly the impact it had on my Family to be able to be at the gathering and to feel the relationship with their Family. Without [AER] I wouldn’t have been able to take my family across the ocean to participate in the funeral with my Family.”

Eldon Mullis, AER’s Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer, said Fort Hood’s AER assisted with approximately 400 emergency leave cases like Toalo’s and Fernandez’s last year, and he thanked the Fort Hood AER team members and leaders who helped Soldiers in those times of need.

“Leadership got involved and got these Soldiers home to their Families,” Mullis said. “Those are types of things we do – that you do on a day in and day out basis, and I thank you.”

For more information about AER and its programs, visit To donate, go to

For more on the AER Annual Campaign, go to

Command Sgt. Maj. Arthur “Cliff” Burgoyne Jr., III Corps and Fort Hood senior enlisted leader, speaks about his personal Army Emergency Relief story during the AER’s Annual Campaign kickoff Feb. 28, 2023.
Spc. Mark Fernandez, a supply specialist assigned to Apache Troop, 1st “Tiger” Squadron, 3d Cavalry Regiment, tells his personal Army Emergency Relief story during the III Corps and Fort Hood Annual Campaign kickoff Feb. 28, 2023.
Retired Col. Eldon Mullis, Army Emergency Relief Deputy Director/Chief Operating Officer, speaks about the nonprofit’s impact to Fort Hood Soldiers and Families during III Corps and Fort Hood’s Annual Campaign kickoff Feb. 28, 2023.