At a time when many Americans are suffering financial hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic, relatively few military families have sought help through the various military relief societies.

And the relief societies that serve the sea services — Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and Coast Guard Mutual Assistance — have provided far more COVID-related assistance than Army Emergency Relief and Air Force Aid Society. The lowest is Air Force Aid Society, with 23 requests from airmen from the beginning of the pandemic through the week ending May 8.

People across the country have been affected economically by the pandemic. While active duty families do have one steady paycheck still coming in, many rely on two incomes. An unknown number of families took a hit financially by the stop movement order altering their permanent change of station move.

It’s difficult to quantify the needs of military families during this period, but some other nonprofits, such as the Armed Services YMCA and PenFed Foundation, have seen an uptick in the financial needs.

According to the weekly online Pain Points Poll being administered by the COVID-19 Military Support Initiative, in the week ending March 31, 37 percent of the 1,234 military spouses who responded had lost the job they held prior to the COVID-19 crisis, had to reduce their hours or were unable to work. The poll is produced in partnership by Blue Star Families and the Association for Defense Communities.

The relief societies are approving virtually all COVID-related requests for assistance. AER has approved 99 percent of requests; AFAS, 100 percent; NMCRS, 98 percent and CGMA, 100 percent. All the relief societies are providing COVID assistance to their services’ Reserve and National Guard members who have been activated on federal or state orders. All have long had procedures in place for service members and families to apply for assistance if they can’t physically go into their offices.

The relief societies are nonprofit charities funded largely by donations from the military community. They provide emergency financial assistance to service members and their families. They have unique, long-standing partnerships with their service branches and are recognized as reputable, reliable sources of help for troops and families in need.

“I’m thrilled to hear the approval numbers. It’s encouraging to know that service members and families who are applying for assistance are getting it, but I am concerned there might be families in need who don’t apply for it,” said Jennifer Davis, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association. “What can we do to make sure we get the message out that the relief societies are here for you?” She said she is “shocked” by the Air Force Aid Society numbers.

“Those numbers are much lower than we would have anticipated,” she said. “We know that military spouse unemployment has increased with COVID-19. We know there are a lot of financial hardships associated with the stop movement order and COVID-19 in general.

“We know there are a lot of reasons military families might be going to relief societies, and it’s really surprising the numbers are this low,” she said.

The Army is about 11 times larger than the Coast Guard, but Coast Guard Mutual Assistance has provided coronavirus-pandemic-related assistance to more than three times the number of clients, and provided more than twice the amount of dollar assistance. CGMA also provides assistance to Coast Guard civilian families, but the overwhelming majority — 80 percent — of their coronavirus-related assistance has gone to active duty Coast Guard families, with half of the active duty assistance going to enlisted members in the ranks of E6 and below.

The numbers as of the week ending May 8:

# assistedtotal $
# members in service branch as of March 31
Air Force Aid Society23$21,714333,167
Army Emergency Relief134$245,000479,233
Coast Guard Mutual Assistance438$512,03541,721
Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society408 sailors
112 Marines
339,048 sailors
184,694 Marines

Part of the engine behind CGMA’s higher numbers is its targeting of a new specific need — parents’ costs of homeschooling and remote learning for their school-age children, as schools across the country have closed. About two-thirds of the people who have received CGMA COVID assistance are in this category. About 90 percent of those are active duty families, with over half being junior enlisted, said Alena Howard, chief development officer for CGMA.

This expanded program offers grants of $500 to those eligible, which can be used to cover basic school supplies, digital learning aids, study books, and printer ink, but not electronics.

But these education grants represent just about one-fourth of CGMA’s total dollar amount. The overwhelming majority of dollar assistance has been for a spouse’s lost wages, and child care/eldercare assistance as schools and centers are closed. The majority of these cases are active duty families, too. During the pandemic, CGMA has streamlined its process for zero-interest loans due to lost wages, increased the amount to up to $12,000, and extended repayment periods.

For the other relief societies, loss of spouse income is a common cause for requests, as well as DoD’s stop movement orders. There have been cases where families have had to pay rent or mortgage for two residences, because they had secured a place to live at a new duty station before being ordered to stay in place at the previous duty station.

In one example provided by NMCRS, a military family had sold their home. Their household goods and vehicle were in storage pending their PCS move overseas. NMCRS helped with temporary lodging.

All the relief societies have expanded eligibility for assistance, and expanded programs over the last several months to meet the needs of those affected by the pandemic, and have been pushing out the word to service members and families that this assistance is available.

For example:

*On May 11, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society launched a new “COVID-19 Rapid Response Loan,” for needs up to $1,200, expediting the process.

*In March, AER expanded eligibility for assistance related to hardships caused by the DoD travel ban and stop movement order to Guard and Reserve members who haven’t been activated under Title 10.

*AER and CGMA expanded assistance to help pay for out-of-pocket costs for storage of remains due to backlogs at funeral homes and the inability of cemeteries to conduct burials during the coronavirus pandemic.

The relief societies’ financial assistance is provided in the form of no-interest loans, or grants, case-by-case based on need. Most is in the form of zero-interest loans, but the aid societies may revisit the need and convert many of the loans into grants which don’t have to be repaid.

Why the gap?

Air Force Aid Society officials aren’t sure why there’s such a large gap between their assistance numbers and those of Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and Coast Guard Mutual Aid, said spokeswoman Latoya Crowe. The combined number of sailors and Marines that NMCRS serves is larger than the total number of airmen.

But requests for emergency assistance overall are “very low,” she said. They expect an uptick in requests over the coming months.

"We typically do not turn Air Force personnel members away if there’s a need, unless they are ineligible,” she said, noting the 100-percent approval rate for these COVID-related requests. “However, if they are eligible, but the request is not within policy, the disapproval comes from [Air Force Aid Society headquarters].”

AFAS is promoting its new COVID-19 programs on social media, and in other ways, she said.

DoD, as well as other nonprofits, provide information to families about the help available from relief societies. When families contact National Military Family Association with requests about financial assistance, NMFA always refers them first to the military relief societies, Davis said. She has not gotten any feedback that families are being turned down by any relief society for assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“We’re ready to respond and we’re working hard to ensure every soldier knows,” stated AER officials, who have approved 99 percent of COVID-related requests for financial assistance. Their online assistance process with electronic transfer of funds has been helpful in responding to worldwide requests.

Many of the military relief societies’ offices are still open on installations, but even if they’re not, the assistance is accessible through long-standing arrangements between the relief societies, and the American Red Cross.

All the military relief societies work with clients who can’t come into the office. They can be reached by phone, or through the American Red Cross, at 1-877-272-7337. Select option 1 for military financial assistance.

As for operations in aid society offices on military installations, service members should check locally:

*AFAS: through the Airman and Family Readiness Center;



*Army Emergency Relief has a locator on its website that helps service members find the nearest AER office or any other military relief society.

Any service member can contact any military relief society for assistance, and the request is routed to the relief society that serves their branch of service.

Many other nonprofits helping military families

Military families seek assistance from a variety of other nonprofits, too. Some organizations serving military families on the ground in local communities have seen an uptick in requests for assistance because of the pandemic, just as there has been increased need in civilian communities.

The Armed Services YMCA, which has 12 branches on or near installations in nine states, has seen a four-fold increase in requests for assistance in some areas, said Charlie Williams, a retired Navy rear admiral who is chief operations officer and chief programs officer. The nonprofit’s primary focus is junior enlisted active duty families.

All the Armed Services YMCA branches have stayed open during the COVID-19 pandemic, and have provided services while following safety guidelines of military, local, state and federal officials, he said.

In the San Diego area, there’s been a four-fold increase in demand, with similar increases in Hawaii, Alaska, and in the Fort Bragg, N.C. area. From their viewpoint, they haven’t seen greater need in any one branch of service, he said. A number of their Armed Services YMCA branches are in areas with service members from multiple branches.

The COVID-related needs are primarily in three areas: food assistance, child care for essential personnel, and education for military children. The branches have had to adapt child care programs, or start new ones to address needs; and have had to use techniques such as curbside pickup for providing food assistance in order to follow social distancing guidelines. Food assistance comes in the form of non-perishable items, and in some cases, commissary gift cards. And rather than the on-site education programs, Armed Services YMCA branches have found ways to virtually conduct a pre-school environment, or online parenting class with members.

He notes that Armed Services YMCA “is one organization in a vast network of other partner organizations helping military families,” to include nonprofits, the services and DoD.

Greater need for Guard and Reserve families?

Some are seeing greater need in the National Guard and Reserve communities than in the active duty community. For example, about 50 percent of the more than 6,000 requests for PenFed Foundation’s COVID-19 related financial assistance have come from the Guard and Reserve community, compared to 10 percent from active duty. About 40 percent have come from the veteran community, said John Nicholson, the nonprofit foundation’s president.

About 80 percent of the applicants ask for help paying rent or mortgage for a month, said Nicholson, a retired Army general.

Within four days after the program opened in early March, 6,000 applications had poured in. The foundation has disbursed about $600,000 in grants to more than 570 applicants. As soon as more donations come in, more grants go to approved recipients.

Some in the Guard and Reserve community are hard hit, particularly where the service member hasn’t been activated on federal or state orders, he said. These service members are not eligible for assistance from the relief societies when they are not activated. However, AER is providing assistance for financial hardship caused by the DoD travel ban/stop movement order to Guard and Reserve members who haven’t been activated under Title 10.

In a Pain Points Poll conducted online by the COVID-19 Military Support Initiative during the week ending May 5, 25 percent of National Guard respondents stated they believe financial assistance is a top unmet need in their community.

Some of these Guard and Reserve families have experienced a complete loss of income — the service member may have lost his or her civilian job, weekend drills may have been suspended, and the spouse may have lost income, Nicholson said.

“The need is frankly overwhelming,” he said.

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.

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