Sgt. 1st Class Crystal Parker awoke from a nap with her 2-year-old daughter the afternoon of Jan. 31 to the smell of smoke and the sound of a neighbor banging on the door.
Parker and her daughter got out, and the neighbor managed to get back in and rescue the dog. No one was hurt, but Parker and her family lost everything in the fire.
A career soldier, Parker was more accustomed to offering help than asking for it.
So she was surprised when, a few days after the fire that destroyed her Roanoke Rapids home, she received a check for $750 to buy enough clothes, shoes and groceries to hold the family over until their insurance policy would start paying out.
The money came from the Soldiers and Airmen Assistance Fund-NC, a tiny nonprofit that provides one-time emergency financial help to members of the N.C. National Guard. Most of the fund comes from donations, but the group also gets some money from the sale of speciality license plates.
In the hope of raising more money through the license plate program, the Soldiers and Airmen fund introduced a new plate Friday. The new design, featuring a sharp-eyed eagle on a vivid American-flag background, should appeal to anyone who wants to show their patriotism on their back bumper, said Dennis Roach, the fund’s part-time director and its only employee. Across the top, it reads, “In God We Trust.”
The tag costs an extra $30 over the regular price of a North Carolina license plate. Twenty dollars from the sale of each plate goes to the fund.
Roach said the organization helped about 140 families last year with a budget of about $150,000. This year, he said, he expects to see a similar level of need.
Some of North Carolina’s 12,000 Guard soldiers, like Parker, have suffered unexpected crises. Others find themselves unable to work because of injuries or psychological trauma from deployments, or because their deployments have ended and they can’t find civilian jobs.
Active-duty service members and their families have access to interest-free loans and grants to help with financial emergencies. But those programs are not available to Guard and Reserve members who are not on active duty.
Those soldiers may qualify for unemployment, but it takes time to get enrolled and begin receiving help. In the meantime, they may have medical appointments to get to, and no way to pay for gas.
“I have paid electric bills,” Roach said. “I’ve called mortgage companies and helped pay the mortgage or the rent on an apartment. I’ve bought gift cards for food at the grocery store if they need it.”
Applicants are screened for financial need by their Guard units.
Since 9/11, the military has relied increasingly on Guard and Reserve units to provide troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Guard soldiers from North Carolina have accounted for nearly 21,000 soldier deployments. Some units have deployed three times, according to Capt. Rick Scoggins, spokesman for the N.C. National Guard.
When some of those soldiers need a little help, Scoggins said, it’s good to know they can find it.
“They are our last resort,” Scoggins said of the Solders and Airmen fund. “For a lot of people, it’s truly a blessing.”