By PAULINE JELINEKWASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Even as it faces budget cuts and forced employee furloughs, the Pentagon is spending nearly a $1 billion a year on a little-known but long-standing program that sends unemployment checks to former troops who left the military voluntarily. The cost of the Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Servicemembers program has tripled over the decade. It reached $928 million last year, up from $300 million in 2003. Defense officials and outside experts have become increasingly concerned about the cost of the program. Some believe it's evidence of weaknesses in other programs, such as those designed to help veterans find jobs. The program is a spinoff of the federal-state unemployment insurance program. The Labor Department says it is meant to help, quote, "eligible workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own."