Over the last five years, Army Sgt. Kakala Loketi has used her Military Star credit card to help fellow soldiers through tough financial patches, as well as to buy necessities for her own family in various emergencies.
She's had her own difficulties as well. Since 2009, she has lost six family members, including her parents, two brothers and two nephews.
So when she found out that she'd won a sweepstakes contest and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service was paying off $8,200 in credit card debt, Loketi called it "a blessing to me and my family ... it came at the right time."
Shedding that debt lifted a heavy weight just before she makes a permanent change-of-station move, she said.
She's moving from Fort Bliss, Texas to South Korea, and is incurring extra expenses moving her husband and 4-year-old son to Georgia in preparation for the one-year unaccompanied tour.
When she found out she had won the contest, she told everyone in her battalion. "And I bought myself some new uniforms, which I needed," she said.
During the "Your Holiday Bill Is On Us" sweepstakes in November and December, shoppers automatically were entered each time they made a purchase with the Military Star card at Army and Air Force Exchange locations. More than four million entries were received worldwide, said AAFES spokeswoman Julie Mitchell.
"During the contest time period, I bought gas for a soldier," Loketi said, adding that the soldier attributes her contest win to the good deed she did for him.
She estimates that about $3,000 of her credit card balance was racked up to help other soldiers in need of food, gas, and items like diapers and clothes for their families. She recalls buying baby necessities for one soldier new to her unit, about nine months pregnant. She also likes to buy her soldiers lunch when she can.
"I went through a lot of ups and downs, but I was still trying to help other people," she said. Her father died March 6, 2014, not long after she had returned from deployment. A month before that deployment, her mother had died. While she was deployed, she was trying to pay off the credit card, but that plan was cut short when her father died.
Her family flew to Hawaii for four of the funerals, and she took out some loans to cover the costly air fare. While in Hawaii for the funerals, she helped out with expenses during the time she was there, helping buy food and drinks and propane gas for preparing food. "Things are pretty expensive in Hawaii," she said.
She's also had to use the credit card to buy gas and food for her own family when they were running low on funds. Over the past year, she's been paying at least $240 a month toward the credit card, and more when she could afford it.
Loketi is still sharing her generosity: after the credit card was paid off, she bought lunch for her soldiers in the field and dropped it off for them.
Two Army retirees also received $2,500 account credits in the contest: retired Col. Steve Schwaiger, a civilian contractor at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; and retired Army Lt. Col. Jon Riches, of Abilene, Texas, near Dyess Air Force Base.
Another 10 second place winners received $1,000 account credits, and 25 third-prize winners received $500 account credits.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.