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AER funds help Soldiers take care of all Soldiers

Feb 27

By by Heather Graham, Sentinel News Editor

FORT HOOD, Texas (February 26, 2009) -- For Soldiers facing financial emergencies, Army Emergency Relief provides grants and interest-free loans.

During calendar year 2008, Fort Hood AER assisted 8,000 Soldiers and their Families by providing more than $8.5 million of financial assistance. More than $200,000 of the money was distributed as grants, and the rest was distributed as interest-free loans.

The determination of whether the assistance is a grant or a loan is solely based on a Soldier's ability to pay, Bradshaw said.

Armywide last year $83 million in relief was distributed through loans and grants to about 70,000 Soldiers and their Families.

For loans up to $1,000, Soldiers use the Comand Referral Program. Under this program, Company, Troop-and Battery-level commanders can review and approve AER loans for up to$1,000.

Last year, Armywide 30 percent of AER loans were dispersed through the Command Referral Program. At Fort Hood, 62 percent were distributed under that program.

For larger loans or grants, Garrison senior-enlisted leader Command Sgt. Maj. Don Felt is the approval authority.

Felt takes his AER duties seriously.

"The only e-mails I habitually open immediately say 'AER'," Felt said. "I consider this one of mty most important duties."

Felt has a more personal reason for making AER such a priority.

"I feel a connection to this," Felt said. "This keeps me connected to Soldiers and helping them."

Felt had an AER loan as a junior Soldier. But Soldiers are not the only ones who can benefit from AER.

Retirees can get AER assistance. Spouses of deployed Soldiers can get an AER loan with a Power of Attorney. When the request for assistance totals more than $1,000, AER representatives call Felt. If he recommends approval of the assistance, a check is cut from AER Headquarters and given to the Soldier, often within hours.

Most loan requests that come across his desk are approved by Felt.

"AER takes care of any emergency," Karen Bradshaw, Fort Hood Financial Readiness Branch manager, said

Felt sees an average of eight to ten AER requests each week, he said.

"The number of loans I have recommended disapproval for, I could count on one hand," Felt said. "They are almost always because the request is not supported by the Soldier's command."

In weighing whether or not to recommend approval of an AER request, Felt takes input from the Soldier's chain of command, command financial specialist and the AER counselor.

"We're here to help people who need help, but we also need to practice prudence," Felt said.

Working with the Soldier's command is key in every situation.

The criterion to obtain an AER loan is that it has to be an emergency, Felt said.

The first step is with the Soldier's Command Financial Specialist where paperwork can be completed and a recommendation can be made. Next, the paperwork is forwarded to an AER counselor. Checks are distributed at AER and are often in Soldiers hands within hours of approval.

"This is Soldiers taking care of Soldiers," Felt said. "That is important because that is what we do."

Felt said it is important that a cohesive, caring environment is established.

AER also "builds an understanding of contributing to the community and spirit of helping others."

The process has oversight, interest and involvement at all levels. The money comes from contributions and investments.

This year's AER fund-raising campaign kicks off March 3 at Club Hood. Last year, Fort Hood contributions to AER totalled $539,000, with $150,000 coming from the retiree population.

There is no maximum amount loaned and no budget for AER.

No mandatory financial counseling is required following the receipt of an AER loan, but it is advised.

AER is a private, nonprofit charitable organization housed mainly at Army Community Services' offices on installations.

"It's a perfect fit," Bradshaw said. "They are both helping agencies."

Last year, 9,946 individuals contributed to AER. Retirees accounted for 1,183 donations, while Soldier contributions were the vast majority.

"If they really need the money, they can get it," Sgt. William Jersey said.

Jersey knows for sure.

He received an AER loan for $1,000 in June so that he could go home because of an illness in his Family. Jersey presented his problem to the command, and hours later, he had a check.

"It is a little intimidating because you have to share your issues with the command," Jersey said.

But, there is tremendous advantages too. Jersey's payment schedule will have his loan paid off within one year and he was allowed to be with his family during the emergency.

"No Soldier should feel alone," Felt said.

But, that interest and involvement must start with the first-line leadership.

"They are most closely involved with their Soldiers," Felt said.

Leaders should know when their Soldiers are having issues. "It's a people issue and a Soldier issue," Felt said. "This is an opportunity to engage leadership."

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