Sequester cuts hit tuition for soldiers, aid for homeless veterans

They fought for their country, and now they're feeling the sting of sequester.

The $85 billion in cuts that went into effect at the beginning of the month will not spare soldiers and veterans, with a wave of cuts being announced for tuition assistance and a program that helps homeless veterans get back on their feet.

The Pentagon for months warned that the sequester cuts would be catastrophic. But the Defense Department is not the only federal agency with programs for servicemen and women that are vulnerable.

Under a federal housing program that helps roughly 100,000 Americans, homeless and formerly homeless veterans will lose assistance due to the sequester. The program is run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and provides state grants to help veterans get housing.

A HUD spokesman told that local officials will determine which projects will not be renewed under the program and that the agency also is concerned about the impact of the cuts on the elderly and children.

Active duty military personnel also will feel the impact of sequestration.

The Army announced Friday that it will no longer accept applications for its Tuition Assistance program, which gives soldiers as much as $4,500 annually to take courses, at accredited schools, toward high school and college diplomas. Army officials could not give a specific amount on how much the cuts would save but said 201,000 soldiers used the program in fiscal 2012 at the cost of $373 million.

In addition, the Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard announced this week that their programs also have been suspended.

Pete Hegseth, chief executive of Concerned Veterans for America, told on Tuesday that Washington indeed needs to examine its spending and cut the waste. However, he said, officials have gone after “low hanging fruit” such as military tuition assistance because special interest groups have protected big items like weapons systems.

“Our government has made a contract with veterans,” he said. “So we have a responsibility to them, above most everyone else. But I would say we need to consider reform.”

Congress allowed the drastic, across-the-board cuts in 2011 after failing to reach a deal on a more measured approach to fixing Washington’s fiscal problems. The cuts kicked in March 1, with Democrats and Republicans acknowledging they could hurt the U.S. economy and trying to find alternative ways to make the reductions, which will equal roughly $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is spared from the cuts. But cuts elsewhere in the federal budget will nevertheless affect veterans. Even a joint effort between HUD and the VA to provide housing vouchers for veterans -- while technically spared -- might be affected because HUD fears local-level housing agencies might not accept the vouchers because of federal cuts to funding that helps them administer the program.

Further, a Labor Department program that provides employment-related assistance for veterans also is being cut.

An agency spokesman said Monday that tens of thousands of veterans under the VETS job-training program will no longer receive assistance.

He said reaching a more exact number is difficult because the cuts were made in overlapping budgets and the full impact will really be felt over the next couple months. But he confirmed that 33,000 fewer veterans will be served under a state grant program known as Jobs for Veterans.

Meanwhile, Americans have complained about the federal government’s spending amid the cuts to veterans and others -- including $250 million in aid to Egypt and an essentially untouchable, $400 billion program to build F-35 fighter jets before testing is complete.

A spokesman for Republican Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the California congressman has warned of such consequences for the past 18 months and continues to try to upend the sequester.

“No one has ringed the alarm bell more than Chairman McKeon,” said spokesman Claude Chafin. He also said McKeon’s objective now is to use House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan’s new budget to end sequester.

“Not delay, not reverse,” Chafin said. “It needs to stop.”