WASHINGTON, March 19, 2013 -- On the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, scholarships for children of troops who died fighting in that conflict are being cut by thousands of dollars, thanks to sequestration.
The awards, called the Iraq and Afghanistan War Grants, go to undergraduate students whose moms or dads died "as a result of military service performed in Iraq or Afghanistan after the events of 9/11," according to the Department of Education.
Awards that have already been established are safe, but as of March 1, the dollar amount for each new grant is being reduced by 37.8 percent from what a student would have received last year.
That means young adults will receive up to $2,133.81 less if they apply for a grant for the first time this year.
The Iraq War officially ended in December 2011, but these grants are not only for children of recent casualties. Children whose parents were killed in earlier years of the wars when they were very young are now old enough to go to college and could be eligible for the grants.
In the past few weeks, four of the five military branches have reported that military families will be hurt in another way by sequestration cuts: Active duty members of the Army, the Marines, the Coast Guard and most recently, the Air Force won't be able to receive tuition assistance for upcoming courses during the rest of the fiscal year.
These branches blamed the automatic budget cuts caused by sequestration for the suspension of their tuition assistance programs. Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said those who have already had assistance approved will still receive it, but about 115,000 will be affected by the cuts.
For almost two years before the sequestration cuts went into effect, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that they would reduce the military's readiness and could endanger benefits to those who serve.
The White House, government agencies and businesses reliant on their contracts have announced a myriad of cutbacks since the $85 billion budget cuts took effect March 1, but this was one austerity measure members of the public were not about to take lying down.
A person identified only as "W.B." from Spring Lake, N.C. started a petition on the White House's We the People website on March 8, asking President Obama to reinstate the tuition assistance programs and prevent branches from cutting them in the future.
Within 10 days, the petition had surpassed the 100,000-signature mark, making it mandatory for the White House to respond, though there is no rule for when they have to speak out on the issue. By the end of the day Monday, it had 112,938 signatures.
Amanda Harrison, who identifies herself as the wife of an active-duty Marine, filed a second petition filed on the website Change.org.
Harrison's petition will be sent to the two Houses of Congress, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and the Public Affairs Officer to the Commandant, as well as the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force if it gets another 12,200 signatures.
Harrison's letter describes how her husband saw the military as an avenue for earning a college degree before he enlisted.
"But now he's been told that he and hundreds of thousands of other active duty service members like him are on their own because Congress couldn't get their act together and resolve the sequestration mess," Harrison writes of her husband.
"I understand that the military budget needs to be cut because of sequestration, but education isn't the place to cut," she writes. "The amount spent on this program is a drop in the bucket for the government, but means so much to service members. It helps them while they are in the service and gives them a head start to find a job out in the civilian world."
Signers who said they were parents and spouses of military members echoed this sentiment.
"My son is in the Marine Corps and his desire is to go to college and get a degree in Criminal Justice when he gets out," wrote one signer who identified herself as Barbara Wing of North Platte, Neb. "He is serving this country for less money than he could earn otherwise and honestly, this was one of the reasons that he enlisted, to have help with college."
The Navy is the only branch of the military that has not yet cut tuition assistance, but Vice Adm. Scott R. Van Buskirk, chief of Naval Personnel, told a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee last week that his office is "reassessing" the program. He requested Congress enact the 2013 Defense Appropriations bill and give the Navy more power to transfer funds between accounts.
"Sustaining discretionary cap reductions through 2021 would fundamentally change the Navy as currently organized, trained and equipped, and drive further reductions in end strength and implementations of force management tools that break faith with our all-volunteer force," Van Buskirk said at the hearing.
Tingley indicated that there are avenues outside of what the Air Force once provided for airmen to fund their education. In addition to providing study materials that could help service members pass tests for college credit, Tingley predicted many would be eligible for grants or stipends.
The Pell Grant program is exempt from sequestration cuts, but OMB reported $86 million would be cut from the Student Financial Assistance office. Fees on Direct Loans received after March 1 increased by 5.1 percent.
Several colleges and universities have responded to the loss of military grants by offering scholarships for active duty students, the Huffington Post first reported.
Southern New Hampshire University is offering scholarships to all active duty military students for the upcoming graduate and undergraduate semesters, a decision born out of the university's high military enrollment in online classes, SNHU announced.
Park University announced last week it will offer "Emergency Military Scholarships" that provide full tuition assistance to active-duty students who don't qualify for Pell Grants, the GI bill or federal loans. Several military publications ranked Park the number 2 school for veterans in the country for 2013.
"I am proud to lead an organization that has taken these strides to ensure our active duty military students' educational needs are met during these difficult times," Park University President Michael H. Droge wrote in a statement announcing the scholarships.