Husband’s Death Propels Widow to Help Others
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
EMERALD ISLE, N.C., Sept. 30, 2009 For the past five years, Vivianne Wersel has been fighting to improve benefits for the widows and families of fallen servicemembers.
Vivianne Wersel, government relations committee chair for the Gold Star Wives of America, testifies before the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on disability compensation and memorial affairs, Washington, D.C. Sept. 24, 2009. Wersel is the widow of Marine Corps Lt. Col. Richard Wersel, who died of heart complications a week after returning from Iraq in February 2005. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
As the government relations committee chair for the Gold Star Wives of America, Wersel has helped shed light on issues regarding financial compensation, continuing benefits for remarried military widows and overall support for survivors.
“Surviving military spouses look to us as their link to benefit information and their voice in Congress,” Wersel said in recent congressional testimony. “We are the vanguards of survivor benefits, educating the public as well as elected officials on issues relating to military survivors.”
But Wersel hasn’t always shouldered this effort. It wasn’t until she became a widow herself in February 2005 that she realized the struggles military widows and surviving family members face, she said.
Her husband, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Richard Wersel, suffered a fatal heart attack while lifting weights in a gymnasium at nearby Camp Lejeune. She learned that laws in place then awarded military death benefits based on various circumstances, she said.
Under those guidelines, Wersel received a $12,000 special death gratuity and $250,000 from her husband’s Servicemembers Group Life Insurance policy. Had he died under identical circumstances a week earlier -- when he still was on his second Iraq deployment -- she would have received an additional $238,000 to help raise her children, who were 12 and 14 at the time.
“It’s not about the money,” Wersel said. “It’s about the principle. There should not be a value on death. The ultimate honor was they died serving their country, not how they died and where they died.”
Wersel never imagined having to argue fair entitlements before Congress. But she did, and she won the additional $238,000 for her family as well as for more than 3,000 others who fell on the wrong side of the former two-tier life insurance policy. Legislation passed in January 2006 provided for a $100,000 death gratuity and $400,000 in life insurance to families who lost loved ones after Oct. 7, 2001.
“I didn’t do it just for me,” Wersel said. “There are surviving spouses out there that are hurting. You can’t put a price or a value that says one death is worth more than the other.”
Wersel’s efforts didn’t stop there. She helped to establish a support group for surviving spouses at Camp Lejeune in April 2006 and has been active in other survivor outreach organizations, such as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and the Gold Star Wives of America.
She spends her Sundays writing letters to members of Congress and other government officials. And despite her day job as a clinical audiologist in Onslow County, N.C., she regularly makes the six-hour drive to Washington to advocate her cause. Over the past several weeks, she’s met meet with several Department of Veterans Affairs, Pentagon and White House officials, presenting them with ways to improve survivor benefits.
“The last thing a military widow needs is to feel isolated and left behind by the military,” she said. “It’s difficult enough to grieve and be strong for their families. They must be recognized, not forgotten.”
Wersel’s current priority is to change the rules that apply to an annuity paid by the Defense Department and a similar benefit paid by Veterans Affairs. Currently, the Defense Department benefit is reduced when the widow begins receiving the similar benefit from Veterans Affairs.
Financial stability is the top concern for the families, especially in today’s economic climate, Wersel said. At the very least, she added, their issues need to be addressed and out in the open.
“Our goal is to establish awareness and change of the inequities we face as Gold Star wives and Gold Star families,” she said. “Sometimes it hurts to have to constantly remind people that things aren’t fair and it’s wrong, because not everyone sees it in our eyes. The widows, we’re the ones who get the phone calls.”