By Scott Prater | Mountaineer staff
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Staff Sgt. Mark Sheafer has first-hand experience of how Army Emergency Relief (AER) helps Soldiers.
More than a decade ago, Sheafer’s daughter suffered a dental injury and needed fairly extensive medical care to repair the damage. However, circumstances prevented insurance from covering the dental procedure, which left a then young private in a difficult predicament.
“I didn’t know much about AER at the time, but my NCO did,” said Sheafer, now a motor sergeant with the 576th Route Clearance Company, 4th Engineer Battalion.
That NCO told Sheafer he’d had a similar experience earlier in his career and that AER had come to his rescue by providing a loan to help him recover.
“I learned a lot about AER at that point,” Sheafer said. “Mostly, that it takes a tremendous load off of Soldiers and also benefits Family members. I learned it was a program that was designed for Soldiers to take care of Soldiers.”
At the time, AER issued Sheafer a loan for $1,400 to cover his daughter’s procedure, but when it came time to begin paying back the loan in monthly installments, Sheafer learned that AER had converted it to a grant.
“I was shocked and more than thankful,” he said. “I’ve been an advocate for AER and the AER campaign ever since.”
Having Soldiers who can relay their experiences to battle buddies seems to help both unit and AER campaign leaders, as the 576th Route Clearance Company leads all Fort Carson units in this year’s campaign.
Unit leaders and representatives presented Frederick Lewis, Fort Carson AER officer, with a check for $12,105 Monday during a brief ceremony.
“They took initiative and are leading the way in donations,” Lewis said.
Capt. Daniel Allen, commander for the unit, even had a giant check made to add a bit of pizazz to the event for the unit and AER leaders.
“Our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeremiah Gipson, has made the AER campaign a priority,” Allen said. “The organization supports Soldiers, and we really want to get behind it.”
Company Soldiers didn’t need to look far to find people who have benefitted from the program. Spc. Antonio Camacho said he fell into some dire financial circumstances recently and that AER came through with a loan that helped him pull through.
While driving his car to the tire shop for a repair recently, Camacho’s auto troubles hit full throttle. A radiator problem caused the car to overheat and break down on the side of a busy road. Mechanics told him the repair bill would likely reach over $1,000. That left with him an unexpected heavy expense and no solution to the problem.
“The timing of it was the worst,” he said. “It was right before the holidays. We had a family trip coming up and I had already bought airline tickets. Then, this car repair bill hit, and I didn’t have $1,000 lying around. I was really stressed out, but then I remembered our first sergeant had talked about AER and its interest-free loans.”
Camacho remembers being a little embarrassed when he entered the AER office at Fort Carson, but the staff there gave him assurances that he was not alone and that financial issues happen.
“The next day, I had a check to cover the repair bills,” he said. “It took a whole lot of stress out of my life. I walked in there pretty beat up, but they did a great job of taking care of me and giving me some tools and knowledge to help prevent this type of event from happening again.”
Perhaps more importantly, Camacho’s experience led him to recommend AER to a fellow Soldier.
“I recently became a team leader in January and just so happens that I had a Soldier who was struggling financially,” he said. “So, I took her to AER myself and helped her start the process. She got a check and was able to take care of what she needed.”
The Fort Carson AER campaign runs through May 15, and Lewis explained that the post still has a way to go to meet its goal of $150,000.
“I think the biggest thing for our Soldiers is they understand how much of their dollar is going to help Soldiers,” Allen said. “There are a lot of great organizations out there that support veterans or wounded warriors, but not every dollar goes toward the cause — it goes to overhead or salaries. But, at AER you know that all of these dollars are going to help Soldiers directly.”