Facing a phalanx of angry military spouses, the Defense Department said Thursday it will resume payments for college courses and job training for spouses who had already applied for grants when the popular program was abruptly halted last month.
The official in charge of the year-old program that pays up to $6,000 for career advancement also apologized for suspending the grants without first notifying thousands of military spouses enrolled. He said grants were halted Feb. 16 because an unexpected spike in enrollment busted the program’s $174 million budget.
More than 136,000 spouses who were already enrolled or had applied for grants before the shutdown will be able to resume signing up for classes Saturday, said Tommy T. Thomas, deputy undersecretary for defense who oversees the grants.
"When we determined that an operational pause in the program was critically needed, we failed to notify our spouses in a timely and appropriate manner," Thomas said. "As a result of our failure, we know we will have to work hard to restore their faith in us."
The program — called Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts, or MyCAA — started in March 2009. Spouses of active-duty military service members and of reservists called to active duty could apply for up to $6,000 to pay for college tuition or costs associated with professional licenses and certificates.
The grants were intended to help spouses find better jobs, since frequent moves by military families often hamper their careers.
The response was overwhelming. By the time MyCAA was suspended last month, 98,000 spouses were enrolled and more than 38,000 more had applications pending. If all of them received the full $6,000 grant, the estimated cost would exceeded $819 million — nearly five times the program’s budget.
Maj. April Cunningham, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said officials were able to reprogram funds to meet MyCAA’s immediate needs. But new grant applications won’t be accepted until the department decides on a long-term plan for the program.
The program’s sudden suspension last month stunned and outraged military spouses. Many who were already enrolled found out from college advisers after they were unable to sign up for new classes.
More than 1,200 military spouses joined a Facebook group to vent their outrage. Others began planning a protest rally in Washington or Norfolk, Va. Many enlisted help from 67 congressmen who sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"The spouses are extremely happy — they feel that their voices were heard," said Rebecca Duncan, wife of a Navy sailor stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, whose pursuit of an applied sciences degree was left in limbo by the shutdown. "We spouses put the pressure on them and we really think that’s what spurred them to turn around."
Duncan, 36, had to put off taking a class that started last month, but said she would now be able to enroll in another course starting in late March. Others depending on MyCAA to pay for their tuition might have to wait longer, she said, until their next class term starts.
"The damage is done for some," Duncan said, "but hopefully they’ll be able to scramble back."
The military says more than 681,000 Americans are married to active-duty service members, who move an average of every three years. A 2007 Defense Department survey showed 46 percent of spouses of enlisted personnel held civilian jobs, while 9 percent were unemployed but looking for work.