By Devon Suits
| Army News Service | May 28, 2020
Army Soldiers with Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force 804-2, return to Fort Devens, Mass., after completing their mission assignment at Jacob Javits Convention Center, New York City, in support of the Department of Defense COVID-19 response, May 12, 2020. U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, remains committed to providing flexible Department of Defense support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the whole-of-nation COVID-19 Response. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff. Sgt. Hector de Jesus) (Photo by Staff. Sgt. Hector de Jesus)
U.S. Army Soldiers deployed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to support the military’s COVID-19 response, with the 352nd Combat Support Hospital from Camp Parks, California, load their luggage and equipment on bus bound for Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, where they will begin their redeployment process on May 16, 2020. U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, is providing military support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help communities in need. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Brandon R. Mace) (Photo by Maj. Brandon Mace)
The Army Emergency Relief program recently expanded its assistance eligibility for Army National Guard and Reserve Soldiers impacted by COVID-19 missions or policy.
Reserve and National Guard personnel mobilized in support of COVID-19 relief efforts can now request AER support upon Title 10 or Title 32 activation, said retired Lt. Gen. Ray Mason, the program's director. Soldiers can also receive AER assistance for up to 30 days after deactivation, as necessary.
Mason said that under routine eligibility, Guard and Reserve personnel must be activated on orders for 30 or more consecutive days to receive AER assistance. This requirement is often waived during a natural disaster or national emergency to support a Soldier's combat readiness through financial stability.
During Hurricane Maria, for example, AER waived the 30-day requirement and provided nearly $4 million in assistance to ARNG and USAR Soldiers living in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Waiving the 30-day active-duty status obligation allowed all Soldiers in the impacted area to request assistance and receive financial support.
"On March 16, we waived that 31-day requirement once again" to support the Soldiers engaged on front lines against COVID-19, Mason said. "It is the right thing to do for Soldier and Army readiness."
Concerns over the virus' spread forced the Department of Defense to enact a stop-movement order and social distancing guidelines, which subsequently canceled most in-person battle assembly drills. Guard and Reserve Soldiers must meet their drill requirement to earn their salary, which includes Soldiers’ insurance benefits.
Guard and Reserve staff sergeants and below who need financial assistanceto pay their Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, or SGLI; Family Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, or FSGLI; and TRICARE Reserve Select premiums, can request AER support, Mason said.
"We are continuing to work closely with Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the Army National Guard director, and Lt. Gen. Charles D. Luckey, the Army Reserve chief, to identify any additional requirements," Mason said. "We will add categories or expand current eligibility requirements based on the needs of Soldiers and their families."
To receive AER support, Soldiers must inform their chain of command of their current financial hardship. They then can go to the AER website for guidance on how to submit an AER application electronically. An AER officer will contact them via email or phone with follow-on electronic application submission instructions and how to receive funds through an electronic funds transfer. Assistance requests must include:
"Army Emergency Relief can't possibly think of all the things that could challenge a Soldier or their Family during these difficult times," Mason said. "If a Soldier is facing a financial problem, come to the AER – our singular mission is to help the Army team overcome financial hardships."
The Army Emergency Relief program is offering a zero-interest loan capped at $3,000 for the dignified storage of family member remains, Mason said. Program officials have extended this assistance to Guard and Reserve Soldiers on Title 10 or Title 32 orders in support of COVID relief efforts.
"Unfortunately, in some cases hospitals and funeral homes are overwhelmed and are unable to conduct a funeral immediately. Therefore, families have to arrange to have their loved ones kept in dignified storage ... at the Soldier's cost," he added.
Once approved, loan repayment is deferred for 90 days while a Soldier or family waits for the disbursement of SGLI, FSGLI, or other life insurance benefits that help cover funeral costs.
Program leads are slated to announce this week, a new program that provides assistance to Army families that are home schooling their children due to COVID-19, Mason said.
"Kids are staying at home, and parents are now filling the role of teachers," he said. "We are providing funds up to $500 per family to defray the costs of supplies so parents can ensure their children have what they need to continue their education at home.
As of May 27, AER has supported over 200 Soldiers and disbursed close to $360,000 in COVID-19 assistance. Year to date, the program has provided over $14 million in support, of which $2 million was in the form of grants – funding Soldier do not have to pay back. Currently, the active-duty force accounts for a vast majority of all claims, Mason said.
"I'm concerned that people are out there -- hurting [financially] -- and they don't know about us," Mason said. "That is something that keeps me up at night."
Soldiers and families continue to hunker down at their homes and dig into their savings to survive. Some households have lost an additional source of income -- as many military spouses were either laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.
Mason added that while the federal government economic stimulus checks have helped many Soldiers and families through this time, it still might not be enough. And as states start to lift their "stay at home" orders, families will likely face increasing financial burdens.
"We think the demand is going to increase … as Soldiers make a more thorough assessment of the impacts the virus is having on their individual finances and basic living expenses," Mason added.