SAVANNAH, Ga. – Military spouses were enthusiastic when the government started offering them grants last year of up to $6,000 for college or career training. Word spread quickly and they signed up by the tens of thousands.
But the response was so heavy that it nearly busted the fledgling program's budget, prompting the Defense Department to suspend it abruptly last week.
That has triggered outrage from spouses of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, a group that can use extra help on the jobs front because their frequent moves hamper careers.
More than 1,200 military spouses have joined a Facebook group to vent their outrage and share letters to their congressmen. Others are proposing a protest rally in Washington or Norfolk, Va.
They say they're stunned that a rare perk offered specifically to military spouses would be snatched away. And they're furious that officials shut down the program without warning and with little explanation.
"The DOD showed lack of respect for the spouses," said Rebecca Duncan, wife of a Navy sailor stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas. "To me this was a huge slap in our faces."
While the grants are still paying for classes and training for thousands already enrolled, 36-year-old Duncan says the shutdown left her in limbo.
Duncan had been approved for a grant to pursue an applied sciences degree, which would qualify her for a pay raise in her job as a medical office assistant. She learned from her college counselor that the grants had been halted before she could sign up for classes, which began Wednesday.
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 program aimed to help military wives and husbands overcome obstacles to finding jobs, a hot-button issue because military families relocate every three years on average.
That makes some employers hesitant to hire military spouses and means they often don't keep jobs long enough to earn promotions and raises.
A 2005 Rand Corp. study found that military spouses are less likely to be employed, more likely to be seeking work, and earn less than those married to someone in the civilian work force.
"This was a program that was designed to recognize the unique challenges military spouses face in developing and maintaining careers," said Joy Dunlap, a family advocate for the Military Officers Association of America. "It was like, yes, they recognize us! They realize what we're experiencing and they want to help us."
About 98,000 military spouses were enrolled in the program when it was suspended, the Defense Department said, and 38,000 more had applied.
Tommy T. Thomas, the deputy undersecretary for defense who oversees MyCAA, says the response was unexpected.
"These applications were overwhelming the system intended to support the program and almost reached the budget threshold," Thomas said in a statement Wednesday.
The Defense Department says it approved six times more grant applications in January than it had in previous months, and that demand for February was also well above average.
The military says more than 681,000 Americans are married to active-duty service members. 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.
Thomas says the shutdown is temporary, but there's no word on when the program might resume or whether the benefit will face cuts.
The Associated Press asked the Defense Department to provide figures for the program's budget and how much money it had spent. A spokeswoman was unable to provide an immediate answer Thursday.
While MyCAA is suspended, the Defense Department has suggested military spouses consider alternatives to paying for college — such as the new GI Bill, a benefit service members can now transfer to their spouses and children.
However, spouses said they don't like that option. First, the GI Bill isn't an option for everybody — military personnel must have six years in the service, and recommit for four more years, before they're eligible to transfer the benefit to their families.
Also, the GI Bill pays for 36 months of college per family. Many military service members need to reserve that benefit for themselves, or want to save it for their children.
"My husband has earned that," said Cammy Elquist LoRe, whose husband is an Army infantry officer at Fort Carson, Colo. "He deserves that and I don't want to take it away from him."
LoRe said the suspension of the MyCAA program halted her plans to work toward a masters degree in organizational leadership at the University of the Rockies. She had applied for the grant and hoped to get classes under way while her husband can still help care for their 2 1/2-year-old son before he deploys to Afghanistan next year.
Thomas said the program would continue to pay previously approved financial benefits to spouses. But several said that doesn't help much in the long run, because the money is paid out piecemeal before each term of classes rather than as a lump sum.
Laura Heitink, the wife of a Marine Corps recruiter in Carlisle, Penn., said MyCAA had been paying since September for classes toward her degree in health care administration. When she went to sign up for her next course last week, she was told the program wouldn't pay for it.
Heitink said she used her tax refund check to pay $750 for the class, not wanting to stop again after putting her college education on hold three times previously because of military transfers.
"Military spouses, we want a career, but it's hard when you have to move around," said Heitink, 31. "When we first moved here I went on nine job interviews. Doctors would say to me, `Well, I want to hire you, but I don't know how long you'll be here."'