As of Wednesday, nearly all soldiers with more than a year's service can apply for financial help directly through the Army Emergency Relief program without notifying their chain of command.

AER officials said Thursday that they hope the move makes their offerings of grants and interest-free loans more attractive to service members in need, keeping them away from outside-the-gate lenders whose interest rates may reach as high as 36 percent, and from title-loan offerings and pawn shops that may have even worse terms.

Five things you need to know about the change to the the AER program, which has been around since 1942:

1. AER 101. More than 35,000 requests for aid led to $46 million in loans and grants disbursed by AER to active-duty soldiers last year, said Charles Durr, the program’s chief of assistance and a retired command sergeant major, in a news release. Those figures have dropped about 35 percent over the last six years, Durr said — a decline the private nonprofit agency attributed to the command-involved application process.

AER opened its direct-access program to sergeants first class in 2013, then added all noncommissioned officers the next year; officers, warrants and senior NCOs already had the privilege.

That process has increased applications and given the program a higher profile, Durr said in an interview. It's also allowed soldiers to avoid command involvement that can be time-consuming — and sometimes embarrassing.

"They've become AER advocates," he said of the NCOs. "They've gone back to tell their soldiers about Army Emergency Relief."

3. Beyond a quick fix. Red flags could include an inability to meet basic monthly living expenses, Durr said, or a credit score that falls below established thresholds (a FICA score of 619 or lower, for example).

"It's not going to be a back door to the command," he added.

4. Prep your packet. Soldiers who go it alone will need to do their own legwork: Full instructions for what to bring to a meeting with an AER official at their installation, including necessary forms, are online at http://www.aerhq.org/.

(The website also offers details on other AER programs, including help available to dependents, retirees, widows and orphans of fallen soldiers, and some reserve-component members.)

Along with personal finance details, Durr said it's helpful for soldiers to have hard evidence to support their request. One common example, he said, would be for applicants to submit an estimate from a certified auto shop if they're seeking help to cover a surprise car repair bill.

5. Command referral continues. The new access rules will not alter the Command Referral Program, which allows soldiers to receive a zero-interest loan of up to $1,500 with approval from their company commander or first sergeant. This lets applicants skip the AER approval process, but it may not be the right fit for all of those in need — Durr said the average AER loan is about $400 more than the CRP maximum.