Before he got a job assisting military members and their families, Michael Meese was in the military himself.
Meese served in the U.S. Army for 32 years, a period that included deployments to Iraq, Bosnia, and Afghanistan and concluded with a stint as professor and head of the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
After retiring as a brigadier general, Meese became the chief operating officer for the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association, and he has worked at the Reston-based nonprofit since 2013, now holding the title of executive vice president.
At AAFMAA, Meese is the norm, rather than an exception.
Almost 40 percent of the nonprofit’s 105 employees currently or previously served in the armed forces, or have a spouse in the military, Meese says.
For a company that provides life insurance, survivor assistance, and other financial management services to service members, veterans, and their families, having employees with the perspective that can only be accrued through lived experience with the military helps AAFMAA connect more effectively with clients.
“Having served, we know what it’s like when we talk to a family on the phone or connect with them online and know what they're going through,” Meese said. “That’s how we tailor all of our products and services to be able to take care of the military and their families.”
Founded in 1879 with the mission of giving survivor assistance to families of deceased military members, AAFMAA claims to be the longest-standing not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting the military and veterans.
Now, the association offers life insurance, wealth management, and mortgage services along with survivor assistance, and its client base encompasses more than 100,000 people, according to Meese.
As Memorial Day approaches on May 27, AAFMAA is preparing to commemorate its 140th anniversary with a celebration on June 10.
Meese says the organization owes its endurance not just to its workers’ understanding of what it is like to serve or have a family member serving in the military, but also because its status as a member-owned nonprofit frees it from needing to answer to a larger corporation or shareholders.
“Our sole and exclusive focus is on military members, and veterans and their families,” Meese said.
The challenges that military families face are unique, since service members frequently change residences and often have to live separately from their spouse and children.
Communication within the family is essential, Meese says.
To address the specific needs of military families, AAFMAA offers physical and digital vaults so clients can store and access important documents regardless of where they are in the world. It has online guides to military benefits and transitioning from a military life as well as more general financial planning information.
In addition to selling its own products and services, AAFMAA assists clients in navigating the daunting bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Veterans’ Affairs to help them get the benefits to which they are entitled.
The company also works with partners such as the Army Emergency Relief, Disabled American Veterans, and the Folded Flag Foundation to help clients find grants, scholarships, and other opportunities for financial assistance.
AAFMAA has provided more than $1 billion in death benefits since 9/11 to members of the U.S. military community, who range from World War II veterans to casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Meese.
“They should not be reluctant to ask for help,” Meese said. “…Having an expert on your side can help you get many of the benefits that you deserve and certainly have earned through your service.”