Can Your Voice Make a Difference?

A regular day that began as seemingly innocuous was the day that all of my life’s goals went out the window. It was the day that my husband, Lt Col. Richard Wersel, Jr., USMC, died suddenly, a week after returning from his second tour of duty in Iraq, February 4, 2005. It’s a reference of time that defines my life into two separate pieces of “before” and “after”. Having been previously focused with great intention of moving in a certain direction, I was emotionally numb and frozen but not silent while living in Emerald Isle, North Carolina with my two middle school children.

Shortly after his death I learned of Congress decision to increase the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI) death benefit and gratuity. Little did I know it was a two-tier death benefit; only enhanced if you died in a war zone or as a result of a training accident. This would exclude families whose military loved one died suddenly, in an auto accident or through illness while serving their country.

Somehow the insult of this two-tier benefit started brewing within me. I was shocked; his death was not considered meeting the criteria of enhanced benefits. It was a significant insult; the difference in payment was $286,000. I was beyond disbelief that families would not be taken care of due to circumstance and location of a death. Outside of processing my own feelings of profound sadness, I knew that somehow I had to fulfill the simultaneous need to voice my objection of this new law. Not only was I facing sadness with grief but now anger with this inequity.

I often say widows sleep like babies, after three hours we wake up have a good cry. I had awakened in the wee hours in the morning. I sprung out of bed and went to my computer to put my thoughts on paper to let the world know how I felt. I wrote one email, attached a picture of our last family photo and sent it to my elected officials, the President and a syndicated journalist, Tom Philpott. The next day I received response back from Mr. Philpott, asking if I would like to go public. I agreed, for I had nothing to lose, I already lost the love of my life, my partner and father of my children.

His article went public July 5, 2005, published all over the world and grabbed the attention of a Senator (Senator John Carey) who agreed to help me with my mission. Two weeks later my case was heard on the Senate floor, and an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2006 became a reality to change the two-tier death benefit, Senate Amendment (SA) 1376.

I channeled my angst by putting grief into action. An amendment to NDAA to change this inequity was a good start. That summer when my children went to camp, I took off work and checked into a hotel. I walked the halls of Congress with copies of the transcripts from the Senate floor going from office to office starting on the House side. This was an easy decision to make since the Cannon building is right next to the metro stop. My mission was educating Congress to change the two-tier death benefit. I knew very little about our Congress except what I learned from School House Rock.

-Dr. Vivianne Cisneros Wersel

Bio of Dr. Vivianne Cisneros Wersel

Dr. Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, has been an advocate for military families since 1992, working as a Key Volunteer for the USMC and she is an active member of the Government Relations Committee of Gold Star Wives of America (GSW).

In 2005, while still on active duty, Vivianne’s husband, Lt. Colonel Richard Wersel, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps, suddenly died just one week after his return from his second deployment, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I and II.

As member of the Government Relations Committee of Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. (GSW) her mission is to help correct inequities in survivors’ benefits and to optimize services provided to survivors. Dr. Wersel leads the group’s efforts to raise the awareness of unique challenges faced by survivors, including issues such as the elimination of the SBP/DIC offset, increasing the DIC benefit, and increasing educational opportunities and improving health benefits for spouses and children of the fallen.

In addition she is President of the new Arlington Chapter GSW (focus on post-911 widows and widowers), sits on the Advisory Board for Got Your Back Network. Dr. Wersel is the initiator and founder of Surviving Spouses Support Group II MEF, and serves on the DOD/ VA Survivors Forum. She was a local representative for the National Military Family Association (NMFA), and volunteered in multiple capacities with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

As a Clinical Audiologist, Dr. Wersel holds a Doctorate of Audiology from Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) School of Audiology-Salus University, and also holds a Masters and a Bachelor’s Degree in Communicative Disorders (Audiology), from San Diego State University, CA. She is a graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLI), Monterey, CA, and holds a language certificate in Spanish. She is presently an audiologist at the DoD Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.

Dr. Wersel hails from Emerald Isle, North Carolina, and she comes from a third generation Marine Corps family. Dr. Wersel currently resides in Alexandria VA ,and is the proud mother of Richard and Katie Wersel, who are each attending college.