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(Enlarge) Fort Meade kicked off its annual fundraising drive for the Army Emergency Relief on Monday at the Community Readiness Center. Installation Commander Col. Daniel L. Thomas joins with Installation Management Command’s Command Sgt. Maj. Neil Ciotola and Headquarters Command Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Smith for a cake cutting for the postwide drive that raises money to support AER’s efforts to provide emergency loans to Soldiers, retirees and their families.

By Alan J. McCombs
Staff Writer

Fort Meade launched its annual fundraising drive Monday to support the Army Emergency Relief with a ceremony and cake cutting at the Community Readiness Center.

AER is a nonprofit agency that raises money to support Soldiers, retirees and their family members. Services include providing college scholarships to surviving family members of Soldiers as well as grants to assist wounded warriors in their transition out of the military.

The charity, however, is arguably best known for providing emergency no-interest loans or grants.

Monday's kickoff for the charity drive, which will run until May 19, was attended by more than 30 AER unit coordinators and installation leaders.

Installation Management Command's top noncommissioned officer from Arlington, Va., Command Sgt. Maj. Neil Ciotola , the day's keynote speaker, began the ceremony by reminding Soldiers that the Army is moved primarily by individual Soldiers taking the initiative.

"We can't try to coerce, coddle or manipulate people," he said. "I want you to set out and convince them to donate."

The drive supports the AER's efforts both on Fort Meade and at other military installations and communities across the globe. AER spent $79 million assisting more than 71,000 people in 2009, according to an AER press release.

On Fort Meade, AER distributed more than $849,000 to the local Army community. That money supported 641 Soldiers, retirees and their families, said Gwendolyn Galloway, Fort Meade's AER officer. The figures represent an increase both in dollars and in people in need from 2008, when roughly $569,000 was given to 412 members of the Army community.

Spc. Conrad Whitt needed little convincing about the importance of the AER campaign.

The Soldier in Fort Meade's Warrior Transition Unit needed some financial assistance last year, he said. The specialist was debating whether to ask family or friends for help when his squad leader suggested something the 12-year military veteran had never heard of -- Army Emergency Relief.

Whitt sought such assistance at the Community Readiness Center, located at 830 Chisholm Ave. In less than an hour, the specialist received $2,500 to help ease his financial burden.

"It was a blessing from God," he said.

Now Whitt is leading the organization's postwide drive. His first experience with the program should prove an asset as he tries to convince others to donate, he said.

"When someone tells you [about AER], it's more convincing if you've lived it," he said.

AER benefits don't just exist for Soldiers such as Whitt.

When Joe Simpson, an 85-year-old veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, died Jan. 16, 2009, his widow, Jo Anna Simpson, struggled to make final arrangements, she said.

She faced the prospect of being unable to bury her husband in Arlington National Cemetery in a timely fashion.

"It would have been devastating," Simpson said. "I would have had to leave my husband's remains in a cold safe."

Simpson came to the Community Readiness Center seeking AER's help.

While AER couldn't pay for the burial itself, the charity provided a grant to help Simpson cover other loose ends related to the burial.

"It was hard for me to ask but not difficult for them to give," she said.

While Simpson's grant doesn't require her to repay the agency, the 57-year-old said she intends to give back to the agency in her husband's name.

"To be able to do anything for them would be a pleasure," he said.

Send comments or questions to amccombs@patuxent.com.

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