FORT KNOX, Ky. — 80 years and growing.
During the height of World War II on Feb. 5, 1942, Army Emergency Relief emerged as a nonprofit organization, linking Soldiers with fellow Soldiers in need of assistance. Officials at Fort Knox say though AER has come a long way in 80 years, it remains true to its mission.
“When AER first started there was only one category of assistance — that was for emergency travel,” said Robert Maxwell, Fort Knox AER specialist, Army Community Service. “Now we have over 30.”
The AER intent was to be a catalyst for Soldiers to help their fellow Soldiers monetarily during emergencies. That assistance has often come in the form of coverage of travel expenses so Soldiers and their Families could bury an immediate family member.
Over the years, according to Maxwell, the organization has relied more and more heavily on retirees and veterans to donate the money during an annual campaign drive that usually runs through the spring months. This year’s campaign spans from March 3 to May 19.
“We get over 25% of the Soldiers donating, although we used to get a 50% participation rate,” said Maxwell. “But historically retirees donate more money each year.”
This year, Maxwell and Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Hernandez, the post AER Campaign senior noncommissioned officer, are hoping to change history.
“That’s a trend that we would like to change,” said Maxwell. “It’s good that retirees are donating, but it would be better if more active duty Soldiers were donating. The more they donate, it shows us that more of them know about the program, and more people will use the program.”
When COVID-19 swept across the nation in March 2020, not only did a greater need for travel expenses surface in some cases, Maxwell said restrictions also left campaign coordinators struggling to get the word out.
“The last two years have been really difficult because we haven’t been able to get out face-to-face as much,” said Maxwell. “It’s been successful still, but not as successful as we would like it to be.”
The recent rescinding of the indoor mask mandates has sparked renewed enthusiasm among them at the possibility to help even more Soldiers and their Families.
A transplant from U.S. Army Recruiting Command, Hernandez said this is his first experience working this close to AER. In the past, he had donated to the cause but admits he never understood what all the categories of assistance were and how much AER can help Soldiers.
He sees his background as a plus in reaching more Soldiers.
“I bring a real big recruiting perspective to this year’s campaign,” said Hernandez. “It’s historical that we help more Soldiers and give out more funds through loans or grants, or a combination of both, but it’s a lot more than what we take in for donations.
Of the $139,000 needed to reach the 2021 campaign goal set to end by May 15, only $2,448 had been raised by March 30. The active duty donation rate at that time amounted to less than 1%.
Despite the struggles to reach people with the need to donate, AER at Fort Knox still helped 170 Soldiers and their Families with $300,000 worth of assistance. This year, they have helped 22 Soldiers to date.
The two are planning a more robust information campaign that will include face-to-face meetings with unit troops and regular social media reminders.
“We’re trying to focus on creating informed and educated leaders, peers and subordinates,” said Hernandez. “What I’ve learned going out these last two weeks and meeting with unit reps is that not a lot of people know what AER can provide. Some think when they give we’re just donating it to a larger cause, and we are, but they don’t see that we’re also helping our local population with it.”
The monetary goal this year remains the same as last year. Maxwell and Hernandez said what they are hoping to see is not necessarily larger donation amounts, although those do help, but larger numbers of those willing to donate any amount.
“People may not realize it but 90 cents of every dollar go to assisting Soldiers,” said Hernandez. “This is a great program with a lot of different categories that can help a lot more people who need it.”
Hernandez and Maxwell asked the community to be on the lookout for more events linked to this year’s campaign. These events could include golf scrambles, Kentucky cultural tours and other ideas pending approval from Garrison leaders.
Maxwell said he also hopes that Soldiers who have a need will reach out to them with a request. Stigmas and past perceptions aside, he and Hernandez said they will look for a way to help if they can within the 30-plus available categories from which to choose.
“AER continues to evolve, and continues to get better,” said Maxwell. “We’re not trying to replace an Army program, we’re here to assist Soldiers if there’s not an Army program that’ll pay for it.”
Editor’s Note: Those who wish to donate can reach out to a unit representative or visit the online donation site at Army Emergency Relief – Soldiers Helping Soldiers.