Their Mission Is to Help

Dec. 1, 2001

Following the sudden terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the wife of a USAF airman first class was stranded in Chicago with her three young children. They had been traveling from Hawaii to Germany when the FAA grounded all commercial flights. Meanwhile, in Alaska, a group of airmen on temporary duty wound up in a similar fix. When their flight was canceled, they couldn’t find quarters on base and had to go to downtown hotels.

These were among the thousands of American travelers who, on Sept. 11, were caught far from home, short of cash, or both. Many were on their own, but those with military connections were able to turn to their services for help.

For Air Force members and their families that help came from the Air Force Aid Society. AFAS stepped in to help them pay for lodging, meals, and other necessities. It also issued 100 prepaid phone cards to the newly created Pentagon Family Assistance Center established Sept. 12 for the families of victims of the Pentagon attack and stood ready to do whatever else it could to ease the impact of the assaults.

Within a few days, AFAS had activated 15 contingency sections in Reserve Family Readiness Centers to support any reservists who might be called up. Drawing on lessons learned from Operation Desert Storm, it began to shape plans to meet whatever other needs might arise as the services geared up to strike back at the terrorists.

In answer to those who called to ask what they could do to help, AFAS created a “Sept. 11th Attack on America Fund.” All contributions go to assist Air Force members and family members who had been or may be affected by the terrorist actions. Details are available on the society’s Web site ( or by calling 703-607-3073 or 800-769-8951.

The day after the attacks, retired Lt. Gen. Michael D. McGinty, AFAS executive director, sent a message to Family Support Centers worldwide, reminding them that the AFAS job is to “help Air Force members and their families wherever, whenever, and however.”

Keeping that promise could be a daunting task in today’s world. One of the aftereffects of the terrorist attacks has been its impact on an already faltering economy. AFAS, which relies on investments for the bulk of its income, now faces the challenge of doing more with less.

History of Helping

This is not an altogether new experience for the society, which was born in wartime and has survived some lean periods. It has a 60-year history of helping members and their families cope with unexpected emergencies, educate their children, and get through hard times.

Last year, for example, AFAS spent more than $24.5 million to assist about 30,000 people. About half of the beneficiaries received emergency help with basic living expenses, emergency travel, medical care, funeral costs, moving expenses, and other similar problems. More than 90 percent of the emergency assistance money went to members and their families in grades E-6 and below.

Those able to repay received interest-free loans amounting to $11 million. The rest were given outright grants totaling $1.6 million.

The same year, the society awarded $8.94 million through its education programs. Most went to the 5,000 spouses and children who received $1,500 each in college grants. The rest of the money supplied tuition assistance for 3,550 spouses of members overseas or went to short-term job training for spouses.

A third category of assistance, community enhancement, claimed more than $3 million in AFAS funds. The money went for purposes such as child care, vehicle preventive maintenance, help for new parents, phone calls for members on deployments, and employment skills training for teenagers.

This whatever-it-takes approach has typified the society’s actions from its beginnings in 1942. World War II was barely under way when Army Air Forces Chief Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold and his wife saw the need for an organization for airmen to supplement coverage provided by the Army Emergency Relief.

McGinty said, “The Arnolds worried specifically about taking care of airmen during the war. They wanted to provide assistance to the families and to make sure that the children of airmen who were lost in the war had educational opportunities.”

Rickenbacker Connection

An incident in World War II also gave the society its first and longest-serving president, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, the top US ace of World War I.

Rickenbacker was serving as the head of Eastern Airlines when officials at the War Department asked him to visit overseas installations to boost morale and report on the quality of pilot training. He was touring Pacific bases when his B-17 strayed off course, ran out of fuel, and ditched. The survivors spent about three weeks on a life raft before being rescued. When Life Magazine asked Rickenbacker to recount the experiences in a three-part series, he donated his fee to AFAS. Rickenbacker became president of the society’s board of trustees in 1947 and served for 26 years.

From these roots, the society in the postwar years grew to embrace a broad range of programs, particularly in the education area. From 1945 to 1979, the society’s Education Fund provided more than $31 million in direct educational loan assistance to 19,000 Air Force families. Then, to increase coverage, AFAS phased out its internally managed loan plan and affiliated with the Department of Education’s Guaranteed Student/Parent Loan programs.

For a time, the arrangement worked well, but as DOE’s “needs tests” became more restrictive, fewer Air Force dependents could qualify. In 1988, the society began to supplement the government programs with its own scholarships. Then, in 1993, it broke with DOE and re-established a fully independent education program.

“We had just been guaranteeing student loans,” said McGinty, “and by then you could do that a lot of different ways. It really wasn’t helping much. So with the education history we had, the board decided that what they really wanted to do was to create some really motivational scholarships.”

However, instead of making or guaranteeing loans, the society’s Gen. H.H. Arnold Education Grant Program provides direct need-based grants of $1,500 per year to full-time college undergraduates who are dependent children of USAF active duty, selected reserve, retired, and deceased USAF members. The Arnold Fund also covers spouses and surviving spouses in the 48 contiguous states.

This school year, the eligibility was broadened to cover sons and daughters of additional reservists, including retired reservists, with 20-plus qualifying years. A second fund, the Gen. George S. Brown Spouse Tuition Assistance Program, offers similar help to spouses who accompany members overseas (includes Alaska and Hawaii).

“Since 1989,” said McGinty, “some $85 million has gone to young people and spouses to encourage them to get at least a start on higher education. It goes all the way back to the Arnolds’ concern about the education part of this.”

Emergency Assistance

Impressive as its statistics are in the education field, however, the bulk of the society’s activity still is in the emergency assistance area. Here, AFAS makes some outright grants or provides other forms of direct aid as it did in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. However, most of the money is disbursed in repayable, interest-free loans. This approach has two advantages. For the recipients, it removes the stigma of accepting charity. For AFAS, it stretches the available dollars. Since some 96 percent of the loans are repaid, it can reuse the money to help other members.

McGinty said, “For years, the theme of the Air Force’s annual Assistance Fund Drive was something like, ‘Give a couple bucks today because all those dollars are going to help somebody, and tomorrow, you may be the one.’ The slogans change but that’s still the philosophy.”

Over the years, the society has not only encouraged members to ask for help but streamlined the process of approving it.

“One of the great benefits of the AFAS,” said the general, “is that we are not bound by a bunch of Air Force regulations. We have guidelines to follow and approval levels for different kinds of assistance. But we let our people in the field be flexible. We also have four caseworkers here to handle unusual cases quickly. We get calls every day and we consider any request. The most important point is to get people to ask.”

In most cases, approval is available locally. Base AFAS officers can approve loans up to $2,000 and grants up to $500. Staff advisors, who normally head base Family Support Centers, can approve loans up to $3,500 and grants up to $500 or, for funeral expenses, up to $3,500. Local commanders can authorize the same levels of help.

“You can do all that at the base level,” said McGinty, “as long as it is within the general guidelines. If it’s not, you make one phone call and the folks here will say ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ There is no chain up through command levels. It has to be that way to be responsive.”

While the bulk of the AFAS help goes to active duty members, the society has expanded its assistance to other groups that previously were ineligible. McGinty said, “The amount of time required for reservists to be on active duty before they qualify for aid has been lowered from 30 down to 15 days. We just opened up the education grants to them, and they received about $150,000 worth of education grants this year.”

AFAS also has approved 80 or so emergency assistance cases this year for the Guard and Reserve. Example: When an Army aircraft carrying a RED HORSE Air National Guard outfit from Virginia crashed in Georgia, AFAS provided $15,000 worth of grants to bring family members from across the country to memorial services.

“This fall we’re also finishing a one-year test of the needs of the Guard and Reserve overall,” said McGinty. “They have been called on to fill a much greater role, and they are sharing a lot of the active duty load and will be taking on more to counter terrorism. So we are trying to figure out what our relationship should be with them. They still have to be on some form of duty with the active forces, but we encourage them just to ask. We don’t have hard and fast rules. If there is a significant need, they are going to get help.”

More for Retirees

The society has been making a similar study of retirees.

“There are 660,000 Air Force retirees,” said McGinty, “and I’m trying to figure out what our relationship with them should be. We can’t afford to help all of them, but which ones do we help and how do we decide? There are people who have just left active duty so their support system is still pretty much Air Force. Then, there are people who have been retired 30 years who went on to a second career and have established themselves in neighborhoods. They probably don’t need the same level of help. But I’m looking at the full spectrum.”

While AFAS is an unofficial entity, it is recognized as the charity of the Air Force and thus has a presence at most Air Force installations around the world. With a salaried staff of only 24, it relies at base level on a corps of military members and Air Force civilians who serve as Aid Society officers.

“We would prefer that all AFAS offices be under the base Family Support Center,” said McGinty, “but where there is no center, bases at least make sure there is an AFAS person somewhere. We have some 500 people who can sign our AFAS checks, and we never have had an abuse of that.”

Almost 80 bases participate in the Bundles for Babies program for expectant mothers. Under it, Family Services gives the classes and AFAS supplies a starter kit including everything from booties and blankets to a stuffed animal wearing a T-shirt with the AFAS logo. Later, other AFAS programs kick in to cover such things as the cost of renting breast pumps, child care for families packing for permanent change of station moves, and longer-term child care (up to $1,000 per month) for volunteers who work with on-base agencies.

Other Helping Hands

Nor must members always be on or near an Air Force base to receive emergency help underwritten by AFAS. McGinty said the society has reciprocal agreements with the Army Emergency Relief, the Navy­Marine Corps Relief Society, and the American Red Cross.

“So, if an airman is traveling … and [is] not near an Air Force base, he or she can go to the nearest Army, Navy, or Marine Corps facility or to the American Red Cross and receive help,” said McGinty. “We reimburse those agencies, and where we help a member of another service, that service reimburses us.”

Maintaining such programs doesn’t come cheaply, however, and AFAS officials have been keeping a close eye on the state of the nation’s economy. The society receives contributions from annual Air Force Assistance Fund drives and benefits from direct contributions and bequests. But the bulk of its money comes from investments. Contributions cover only about 25 percent of the cost of emergency assistance. The rest, plus the society’s operating costs and all of its education programs, are paid for from investment income.

The AFAS board of trustees develops overall investment plans and commercial managers handle day-to-day business decisions. One manages bonds, another handles equity funds, and a third does value investing.

“One of my challenges [is] to do some serious planning for the future,” said McGinty. “Our programs were structured to endure two years of bad markets or even three years. Well, now we are coming to the end of our second year of a bad market and we’re having to take a look at what options we have. Of course, we will never, ever reduce emergency assistance. Whenever there is a valid need for it, that’s going to be met with a loan or a grant. Hap Arnold would turn over in his grave if we refused somebody emergency assistance.”

Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “The Recruiters and the Schools,” appeared in the October issue.