WASHINGTON — With her husband deployed in Iraq with a Stryker brigade from Washington state's Joint Base Lewis-McChord, 20-year-old Lauren Silva isn't your typical college student. But when it comes to finding money for tuition, books and other expenses, she's not so different.
Silva has scrambled to apply for scholarships and loans to pay for classes at the University of Washington-Tacoma, where she's a junior studying social work. She thought part of her financial problems were solved when she learned of a Defense Department program that pays military spouses $6,000 to help them with their education. Yet just as Silva prepared to apply earlier this year, the military abruptly shut the program down.
The Pentagon was overwhelmed by the number of applicants, which had grown from an average of about 10,000 a month to 70,000 in January alone as the nation's economy continued to sputter. Money for the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts program, known as MyCAA, was rapidly running out. Rather than ask Congress for more cash, Pentagon officials decided to close the program to new applicants and stop payments to those who were already enrolled.
"This was probably, in my view, a mistake," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee last week, adding that while he expected the program to resume, it eventually could end up costing $1 billion to $2 billion.
Gates said the Pentagon had budgeted $61 million for the program in the current fiscal year and had requested $65 million in the next fiscal year.
"This is one of those cases where we had a program that ramped up slowly and then it exploded in popularity," Gates said. "We are looking for a path forward."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who raised the issue with Gates at the hearing, said the Pentagon should have come to Congress.
"How they have handled this is infuriating," Murray said in an interview. "This is crazy."
Silva is just trying to take it in stride as she worries about her husband in Iraq and the mounting debt as she continues her education.
"It's nerve wracking," Silva said. "It's not like you have money laying around. I can continue without it, but I am applying for more loans, and that means more debt."
The program, begun in 2009, was designed to help the 1.3 million spouses of active-duty personnel and spouses of reservists called to active duty. The $6,000 was to help pay for college tuition or to cover the cost of attending a professional or trade school. The money was intended to help spouses land in high-demand, high-growth fields in which there would be jobs regardless of where they were stationed. It also was to help spouses land better-paying jobs.
In a survey conducted by the Pentagon, 77 percent of spouses said they wanted to work.
In February, however, without warning or notification, the program was shut down. More than 136,000 people had been accepted into the program and about 98,000 had actually received their benefit checks.
Julia Aten was among those who were already enrolled in college, only to find she was going to be short of tuition money. Aten's husband is serving in Afghanistan with units from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She lives in Puyallup, Wash., and has a son attending Pacific Lutheran University.
Aten, 42, who is also studying social work at the University of Washington-Tacoma, said she was stunned the military had halted the program without any notification. She said she learned about it on Facebook.
"You don't promise 130,000-some people something and then don't follow through," she said. "The MyCAA money is critical. I would have gone to the UW-Tacoma anyway, but it would have been hard. We aren't getting a free ride."
Though she isn't particularly political, Aten and thousands of other spouses who had been counting on the MyCAA money banded together to convince the Pentagon to change its mind. More than 1,200 military spouses joined a Facebook group to protest, and plans were developed for a rally in the nation's capital.
Aten and others also lobbied their members of Congress. Sixty-seven lawmakers sent a letter to Gates.
"Halting this program without notice is not the way to support those who sacrifice so much to make our military what it is," the letter said.
Less than a month after the program was "paused," the money started flowing again. However, the program isn't accepting new applicants. The Pentagon said it's reviewing long-term plans for the program.
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