Staff Reports, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – Fort Lee senior leaders signed the first pledges of financial support to kick-off the Army Emergency Relief Campaign at a Town Hall here today.
Maj. Gen. Darrell Williams, Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee commanding general; Command Sgt. Maj. Nathaniel Bartee, senior CASCOM noncommissioned officer; Col. Paul Brooks, Fort Lee garrison commander and Command Sgt. Maj. Clarence Richardson, senior garrison noncommissioned officer, signed payroll deduction forms in front of a packed Lee Theater, setting the tone for the campaign that ends May 15.
AER funds provide emergency financial support, scholarships and low-interest loans for active duty soldiers, military retirees, surviving spouses and their dependents in crisis. These are the types of emergencies that arise suddenly, are unforeseen and require immediate attention, according to the Fort Lee Financial Readiness program manager, Juanita Lazenby. Typical support provided by the fund include food, rent, utilities, funeral expenses, emergency transportation or medical expenses.
This year, Fort Lee aims to collect $110,000 to replenish the fund, which provided more than $992,000 in grants and loans to 743 eligible personnel last year in the Fort Lee area alone. Support of that magnitude, noted Patsy Piggott Fort Lee’s AER program specialist, would not be possible without the caring contributions of community members.
Former military spouse Florence Lujan-Smith is an eager advocate of the AER program and offers a prime example of how the fund supports eligible families in an emergency.
Lujan-Smith’s family was flat broke while stationed overseas and needed to return stateside to attend burial services for her mother who had unexpectedly passed away from an illness.
“My only thought was, ‘how in the world are we going to manage this?’” said the Fort Lee employee who is now a protocol coordinator for CASCOM. “We were barely managing to pay our bills. There was no way we could afford the cost of going home.”
News of her mother’s death came on a Sunday. She and her husband Bob (now divorced) went to work on Monday to request the time off to return home even though they still had no idea how they were going to pay for it. Her husband found a solution later that afternoon.
“He went to the Army Emergency Relief person in Stuttgart and was given a grant for the tickets to fly home,” Lujan-Smith said. “I was so grateful and made a note to thank the person who made it possible when we got back.”
Arriving at her mother’s home, Lujan-Smith said she received another shocker – there was no money for her mother’s final expenses.
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “My sister told me the family figured we could pay for the funeral because Bob was in the military and supposedly making big bucks. They had set up an appointment at the funeral home the next day to make arrangements. We didn’t have any money.
“After we talked, I sat wondering how I would tell Bob they expected us to pay for the burial,” Lujan-Smith continued. “He realized something was bothering me and asked what was wrong. He just sat there in disbelief when I told him.”
The next day, Lujan-Smith’s sister brought them to the funeral home and told them about the plans they had made for the arrangements.
“She started talking about how the family had selected a coffin and made other arrangements,” she said. “In my mind, I’m thinking ‘how can you make arrangements when you don’t have any money to make them?”
They explained to the director they didn’t have the funds and inquired about the process for burial.
“He took us into another room where there were plain wood coffins,” Lujan-Smith said. “Real unfinished ones, like in the cowboy movies. He said the county would bury her, but she wouldn’t get a marker and the wooden box is all there would be.”
After receiving the grant in Stuttgart, the AER representative had given Lujan-Smith’s husband contact information for AER in California. He decided to give them a call to see what they could do.
“He was able to get a loan that we would repay with low monthly installments,” she said. “I just breathed a sigh of relief. As we left the funeral home, I was just so thankful for AER and the military.
“Before this, I knew about AER, but never gave them a second thought,” Lujan-Smith continued. “To me, they were an organization just trying to get some of my money. But after that event, I made it a point to always make a donation. Sometimes, it wasn’t a lot, but I always made sure it was at least $10 per pay period.”
Now, Lujan-Smith said she has three children in the Army, and they always make a donation to AER, just in case they may need it. She also encourages others to do the same.
“I hope people don’t think like I used to,” she said, “that AER is just another organization trying to get my money. AER was there when I needed it the most, and it will be there when you need it. It provides food vouchers for Soldiers and retirees. It can help with vehicle repairs. It can help you with rental home deposits. When you’re moving and dealing with PCS [permanent change of station] expenses, it can help then.”
The 2016 AER Campaign extends from March 1 to May 15. Visit www.aerhq.org to learn more or to contribute.