Army Emergency Relief members are sometimes victims of those emergencies themselves

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The Army often helps civilian authorities with disaster relief. But sometimes, soldiers and their families are impacted by those very disasters such as hurricanes. Help is available. For details, at the start of what promises to be a busy hurricane season, the director of Army Emergency Relief, Raymond Mason, joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Welcome back to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin, here on Federal News Network. The Army often helps civilian authorities with disaster relief. But sometimes, soldiers and their families are also affected by those very disasters, such as hurricanes. Help is available. For details at the start of what promises to be a busy hurricane season, the director of Army Emergency Relief, Raymond Mason. Mr. Mason, good to have you on.

Raymond Mason: Great to be with you, Tom, and your listeners.

Tom Temin: All right. So first of all, tell us about the organization AER. That’s one we have not had on.

Raymond Mason: Well, thanks for having us and helping us get the word out across the global army team. AER has been around 78 years. We were stood up, if you can do quick math, in 1942 by the Secretary of the Army. It was called the Secretary of War back then, and the chief of staff of the Army, who was George C. Marshall, a pretty famous individual, and went on to have an incredible career after his time as a five-star. So in those 78 years, we’ve assisted about 4 million members of the Army team to the tune of about $2 billion in assistance, about $1 billion of that since 9/11. And we are part of the Army. We’re located at every Army base. We’re embedded with the Army Community Service. And so soldiers can come to that ACS office, the brick and mortar but also since COVID, we put on an online application process, so you can do it digitally, virtually, as well as paying soldiers or giving the assistance through an electronic funds transfer. That’s a little bit about our history. And like I said, on our board of managers are active duty, the vice, the sergeant major of the Army, are part of our board. So we truly are part of the Army team.

Tom Temin: In 2019, there was $9 million worth of assistance to soldiers and their families. Is this appropriated money? Is it donations? How do you raise the funds?

Raymond Mason: Yeah, great question. It’s 100% donations. Donations come from both active duty and retired soldiers, as well as American citizens and corporations. We receive no federal funds, no local, state funds at all. It’s all through donations. But just to correct that number, that was actually $9 million just for disaster recovery. We actually did about $70 million in assistance in 2019. Both loans, no zero-interest loans. We charge no interest at all. Grants, which our soldiers don’t have to pay back. And we also do scholarships for children and spouses of military members. So all that added up to about $70 million last year for about 45,000 members of the Army team.

Tom Temin: And since everyone in the Army at a given rank earns roughly the same money, you probably can’t do means testing for grants and loans and different forms of financial assistance. So is it just first-come, first-serve or everyone that shows up can get help? How does that all work?

Raymond Mason: Yeah. I will tell you that 99% of the people that come into AER get some assistance. About 1% have either a particular category, that Department of Defense does not allow us to provide assistance to. We don’t pay for marriages, but we also don’t pay for divorces. We don’t pay legal fees and a few other things. So, it’s all needs-based. We don’t care what rank you are. We’re rank-agnostic. A private can come in, a general could come in. Now interesting enough, the most common need in the rank structure is usually sergeants and staff sergeants–E-5’s and E-6’s. And that really kind of drives from both their professional and personal life. Most E-5’s and E-6’s are married. Many have children. They’ve begun to accumulate debt in their life, whether it’s a mortgage, rent, cars, kids, all those kinds of things, and their pay, while OK, they got to watch their monthly budget. So, a soldier comes into AER, we sit down, we go through the need that’s there, we do a budget, take a look at your income and your output, and then we determine what what’s going to help you get you back on your feet back in the fight.,

Tom Temin: All right. We’re speaking with Raymond Mason. He’s director of Army Emergency Relief. And in the disaster response area, give us the typical scenario of how the soldier and his or her family might be affected by the very disaster they’re helping with.

Raymond Mason: Sure. Yeah, a lot of times if you’re on an Army base, you’re an active duty or maybe you’re retired, located in that area, the installation commander may make some decisions–that’s usually a colonel and a sergeant major–to maybe evacuate that installation, go to safer locations. We will assist with an immediate $600 cash card to allow you to get out of post, get to wherever you need to go, get hotel and things of that nature. We’ve done that repetitively when natural disasters occur, and they can come in many forms. We talked a little about hurricanes, but you’ve also got fires, you got earthquakes, you’ve got hail storms that occur. So any of those kinds of things we’ll take a look at, and then we’ll help also with recovery afterwards. So let’s say your house was damaged, your car was damaged. If you lost personal belongings, we can assist with all those as well. So it could be fuel, clothing, food, hotels, God forbid, funeral expenses and things of that nature. So it really runs the gamut. We have over 30 different categories of assistance we provide. But the thing I always tell soldiers and leaders is, “Look, when you go to our website and you see the categories, if something you’re dealing with isn’t listed there, still come to AER.” We couldn’t possibly think of all the things that could happen to somebody in their life. So just come to AER. Our motto is, “Just ask.”

Tom Temin: And if someone is suffering an injury or a loss in some manner, a tort, if you will, as a result of their service, where does the Army help just as a matter of course of taking care of enlisted and officer people, versus where they would need to go to an AER?

Raymond Mason: Yeah, sure. The first line of defense is always the Army and the local commander and the whole installation. There’s many capabilities on an Army base, just like the other services as well, to assist families, to assist soldiers. You’ve got the Army Community Service, which has lending closets, has all kinds of training capabilities. So there’s a lot of capabilities on the installation, and really, we are somewhat of a backup to the military infrastructure that’s there to support members and their families. But we also have some unique capabilities. For example, in the medical side, active-duty soldiers and the vast majority of retired have TRICARE insurance that covers their medical needs. However, there are certain things that TRICARE either doesn’t cover. Like for example, a cranial helmet for a child. So, a child’s born, the cranium isn’t formed correctly. If it’s a medical reason, TRICARE is going to cover that. But if it’s cosmetic, and then it becomes an elective kind of situation, that’s not going to be normally covered by your insurance. That’s where we will step in as AER, and we will provide a 100% grant for a family if they need to get cranial helmets for the children. We do heavy blankets for children with autism. We’ll provide capabilities in your house, whether you live on post or off, for ramps, for special beds, wheelchairs, things of that nature. So we’re there as a backup, and in some cases, to fill in that gap that may not be covered.

Tom Temin: I guess we didn’t ask this specific question: How many soldiers and family members come through every year nationally?

Raymond Mason: Yeah, about 40 to 45,000, annually come through AER. Interesting enough, about 80% of the folks that come to AER come one time in their career. Something happened Life happens, you know, like we’re talking about natural disasters, or maybe they could have made an unwise choice. They come into AER, we’ll get them back on their feet, give them some dollars, the most common loan we do is about $1500 for 15 months. They’ll pay it back $100 a month and get no interest. And then it could also be a combination of a loan or grant or a full grant. For example, emergency leave. So, the soldier or their spouse back home–mom, dad, brothers and sisters–there’s a serious illness or a death in the family. We need to get that soldier back home or get the spouse back home. That is automatically a 50% grant and a 50% loan for all the costs they incur, whether that’s plane tickets, train tickets, rental cars, hotels, food. It could never go below 50% grant. It could become 100% grant, depending on the individual circumstances. So, again, we’re there to–soldiers and sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen go through a lot, and we want to help them get through these challenges in life and then get back into their mission.

Tom Temin: And in connection with loans, sometimes that gets into the issue of financial literacy, which is sometimes an issue, and often members of the military get taken advantage of by regular financial institutions. We’ve heard cases of this over and over, over the years. Do you offer any kind of services in terms of counseling on how to manage finances better and how to deal with regular financial institutions?

Raymond Mason: Yeah, great point. So AER, in some ways, is a little bit like the story about: Give a person a fish, they eat for a day; teach them to fish, they’ll eat for their life. So, we kind of give the fish, right. So, we are providing dollars to help you overcome this particular event that’s occurred. An Army Community Service is a whole capability set of financial counselors. Most of our Army Emergency Relief officers in the field–we have over 220 of them at 70 locations–most of them are also certified financial counselors. So you’re exactly right. The financial resiliency, the financial literacy side of this is absolutely key. It’s a little bit of the yin and the yang. And we encourage–we don’t require, but we encourage–soldiers to get financial counseling, and many of them end up really understanding how their budget’s operating and they come out a stronger person financially. The family does as well. And we encourage them to bring their spouse as well. So yeah, that capability absolutely exists. We have a financial readiness program manager at every installation that’s an installation management command employee, and it is absolutely key. So I couldn’t agree with you more. The predatory lending agencies that are out there, unfortunately, in front of every post around the world, they are preying on our military members, and we definitely advise them about that. We try to inform them of where they are and what they’re trying to do. Our military members are protected by the Military Lending Act. But still, it’s usually a death spiral when you go out to one of these payday loan locations.

Tom Temin: Alright. Raymond Mason is director of Army Emergency Relief and retired career Army himself. Thanks so much for joining me.

Raymond Mason: I appreciate it, Tom, for helping us get the word out. That’s what this is all about. Our goal is 100% of every Army team member is informed about AER’s benefits and programs.

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