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Budget deadlock squeezes military members seeking education

United States Marines salute from the stands during the American National Anthem prior to the start of the San Diego Padres vs the New York
United States Marines salute from the stands during the American National Anthem prior to the start of the San Diego Padres vs the New York

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - For Airman First Class Stephen Sinatra, the budget cuts prompted by deadlock in Washington have turned his plans upside down.

Sinatra, who is in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Washington, D.C., is taking online college classes thanks to a tuition assistance program for members of the military that has been halted as a money-saving move.

"I don't make much money," Sinatra said. "To be able to utilize this money to go to school and better myself, it helps a lot. That's almost what keeps me to be motivated to keep going in the military."

The tuition assistance program, which provides up to $4,500 per year per student, is one victim of across-the-board cuts known as sequestration that are forcing government agencies to reduce spending. The $85 billion in cuts began on March 1 after a gridlocked U.S. Congress was unable to resolve fiscal fights and find a solution to replace the sequestration.

Comments left on military message boards and Facebook show a widespread disappointment with the sudden termination of the tuition assistance program, which is not a part of the military contract, like the G.I. Bill for veterans benefits, but is considered an incentive to enlist.

"I have seen a lot of people who have lost their motivation to be in the military when they take away the one perk that people seem to enjoy," Sinatra said.

Several colleges have moved to defer tuition charges for the coming term to help military members who are already enrolled, and two senators, one Democrat, one Republican, have introduced legislation to bring back the tuition assistance.

Students who have already enrolled in classes using the tuition assistance program will be allowed to complete those classes, according to a memo from the Army announcing the cancellation of the program.

"This suspension is necessary given the significant budget execution challenges caused by the combined effects of a possible year-long continuing resolution and sequestration," the Army memo said. "The Army understands the impacts of this action and will re-evaluate should the budgetary situation improve."

The Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard have also suspended their tuition assistance programs.

Airman Michael Bueno works the overnight shift at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, so that he can attend college during the day.

"One of the biggest incentives to join the military is the 100 percent tuition guarantee," he said. "We don't make much money, so tuition assistance is a big benefit recruiters use to get people to join the military."

Bueno said it seems the country is turning its back on the military.

"A lot of people in the military serve their country and protect it, but it backfires when the country tries to take away from us what they promised," he said.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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