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Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, Au.D.

Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, Au.D., Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Chair, Government Relations Committee

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,  to care for him who has borne the battle, his widow and his orphan.”

         …President Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865   

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, I am Vivianne Wersel, the Chair of the Gold Star Wives’ Government Relations Committee.  Thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement for the record on behalf of Gold Star Wives of America.  I am the surviving spouse of Lt Col Rich Wersel, Jr. USMC who died suddenly on February 4, 2005, one week after he returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq. 

Gold Star Wives of America, Incorporated, founded in 1945, is a congressionally chartered organization of spouses of service members who died while on active duty or who died as the result of a service connected disability.  Our current members are widows and widowers of military members who served during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and every period in between.

Gold Star Wives is an organization of those who are left behind when our nation’s heroes, bearing the burden of freedom for all of us, have fallen.  We are that family minus one; we are spouses and children, all having suffered the unbearable loss of losing our spouses or fathers/mothers.  We are those whom Abraham Lincoln referred when he made the government’s commitment “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.

Today, we highlight important areas of concern regarding survivors of those service members who died as the result of an illness from the Gulf War.

Gulf War Illness: The Future of Dissatisfied Veterans 

We would like to speak to you on behalf of Gulf War veterans who can’t speak for themselves.  They either died during that conflict, or died later of a service connected illness or injury.  GSW represents their survivors.

 The Secretary of the Veteran’s Administration should revisit the Persian resulting from their service Gulf War Veterans Registry that was established under Title 38, Part 2, Chapter 11, Subsection 11, Section 107, “Evaluation of Health Status of Spouses and Children of Persian Gulf Veterans.”  The program was established to evaluate the health status of spouses and children of Persian Gulf War veterans of 1990-1991.  The program was funded to not exceed $2,000,000 and covered a period of time from November 1, 1994 to December 31, 2003.  According to the report:  Gulf War Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans:  Scientific Findings and Recommendations published in November 2008, “No information from VA’s Gulf War family registry program has ever been issued.”  Most military families do not have access to Federal Register publications to receive government information, much less reply within a specified period of time.  Certain spouses and children of this war continue to suffer illnesses and disorders, as written in the media and reported by veterans and their families.  The registry should be revisited and the results made available to those who registered, or need to be registered. VA should publicly broadcast the opening of such a registry to veterans, spouses and children. 

We are pleased that the Secretary has recognized that the Gulf War veteran’s illness is real, and is providing Gulf War veterans the same respect given to Iraq/Afghanistan veterans at VA clinics and hospitals.  Full honor and respect should be given to all veterans in need of medical care.  No service member should suffer a long term illness and/or death because of denied medical care, and no family should witness such a death. 

We acknowledge improvements on the handling of medical claims and evaluations of veteran’s ratings for compensations. However, more work needs to be done for the surviving spouses and children.  It is our sincere and strong desire to see the repeal of the SBP/DIC offset for surviving spouses of Gulf War veterans.  The offset is an injustice that has been recognized by Congress, The Military Coalition, and the National Military and Veterans Alliance.

Many Gulf War veterans’ claims were inappropriately processed and the veterans received a much lower disability rating than they should have received.  In some cases, veterans who were inappropriately rated, or even worse yet, whose claims were denied, died of the service connected cause within a short time.  Their survivors were left without the entitled benefits or had to re-file the claim after the death of the loved one, if they even knew to do so.

GSW applauds Congress for the recent legislation that benefits caregivers of wounded warriors who were injured on active duty after 9-11-2001.  However, we are unhappy that wounded warriors and the caregivers of wounded warriors from past wars were excluded from this legislation. Such exclusions demean the contributions and service to this country of those who served in past wars and sacrificed their health to serve this country. Many of those who were injured or ill from past wars are in need of caregiving assistance as much as those injured or ill after 9-11-2001.

Children born to those who served in the Gulf War, who were once referred to as Desert Stork Babies, are now of college age. These children, who lost a parent who was serving in the military or due to that service, are eligible for education benefits under Chapter 35, Dependents Educational Assistance. Chapter 35 benefits do not provide enough to cover today’s college tuition and expenses.  Under the New GI Bill, children of service members who died on active duty after 9-11-2001 are eligible for the Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship which provides adequate financial support for 36 academic months.  The children whose parent died prior to 9-11-2001 were not included.

The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuity for surviving spouses is offset dollar-for-dollar by the amount of Dependents Indemnity Compensation (DIC) a surviving spouse receives.  The surviving spouses of those who died on active duty after 9-11-2001 are allowed to assign the SBP benefit to the children of the service member; the children receive the benefit until they reach the age of 22.  Once again, the children of those who died on active duty or as a result of their service prior to 9-11-2001 were not included in this option.

Children of those who died on active duty after 9-11-2001 receive active duty TRICARE coverage and dental insurance until they reach the age of 23 (if enrolled full-time in school), but children of service members who died on active duty prior to 9-11-2001 had 3 years of transitional active duty TRICARE, and then were switched to retired TRICARE coverage and had to pay premiums or deductibles. Children of those who died in retirement receive retired TRICARE and must also pay cost shares, deductibles and co-pays.

Appropriate VA bereavement counseling is often not available or readily accessible.  The only other option available for bereavement counseling is to use TRICARE or CHAMPVA; those who use TRICARE or CHAMPVA must not only pay a fee for each visit, but bereavement counseling results in a diagnostic code for either situational depression or clinical depression. These diagnoses can later be detrimental to the individual when applying for a job or schooling.  Mental health counseling using TRICARE Prime requires co pays of $17 (group session) or $25 (individual session) per visit, if seen outside the military treatment facility.  Those on TRICARE Extra or TRICARE Standard, incur co pays of 15% and 20% respectively.  For a family with a surviving spouse and three children the cost can be prohibitively expensive.

Many of these surviving spouses and children not only participated in the care of the veteran, but also witnessed the death. Caregivers often suffer from a form of PTSD due to the care they provide for the disabled veterans. No counseling or support is provided for the caregivers who care for veterans who were disabled as the result of service prior to 9-11-2001.

All surviving spouses should have a casualty assistance officer assigned to assist them with planning the funeral and in obtaining the benefits that are due to them. While surviving spouses of those who die on active duty are assigned a casualty assistance officer, surviving spouses of those who died of a service connected disability and/or in retirement are not assigned a casualty assistance officer. As a result, these surviving spouses often are not aware of the benefits for which they are eligible or the time limits for filing claims.

The Army has established Survivor Outreach Service (SOS) offices that assist survivors with benefits and finances. SOS will help any military surviving spouse regardless of the spouse’s branch of service; however, SOS offices are located on Army installations and therefore are not readily available to survivors outside those areas.

Conclusion:

  • The DIC offset to SBP needs to be removed so the surviving parent has enough income to support college age children and avoid financial hardship themselves.
  • The spouses of those with a severe service connected disability who provide caregiving for their disabled spouses need assistance and support while they are doing the caregiving.
  • Children of those died on active duty before 9-11-2001 and children of those who died of a service connected disability in retirement need to be afforded the same medical and dental benefits as the children of those who died on active duty after 9-11-2001.
  • Surviving spouses and children need bereavement counseling without a diagnosis of clinical or situational depression, and they should not have the financial burden of paying fees for each counseling session.
  • Surviving spouses of those who die after retiring need assistance in obtaining the benefits to which they are entitled.  A casualty assistance officer should be assigned to every surviving spouse
  • Chapter 35 education benefits need to be increased to the level of the education benefits available to children whose parent died on active duty after 9-11-2001.
  • Surviving children of those who died on active duty after 9-11-2001 have until age 36 to use educations benefits; surviving children of those who die of a service connected cause in retirement should also be allowed to use education benefits until they reach the age of 36.
  • Surviving spouses who were full-time caregivers cannot be expected to use education benefits while caring for a disabled veteran 24/7. The time limit on education benefits needs to be 20 years after the death of the military spouse or, better yet, the time limit needs to simply be removed.
  • Programs such as Marine Corps and Army Long Term Case Management and the Army’s SOS program need to be available to the surviving spouses and children of all branches of military service.

Thank you for your attention.