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

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

Chairman Stutsman, Ranking Member Bilirakis, and members of the Subcommittee
on Economic and Opportunities, thank you for the opportunity to present testimony on behalf of Gold Star Wives of America (GSW).

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki once stated, "Taking care of survivors is as essential as taking care of our Veterans and military personnel. By taking care of survivors, we are honoring a commitment made to our Veterans and military members.”   We thank this committee for including us today to honor that commitment.

I am Vivianne Wersel, the Chair of the Gold Star Wives' Government Relations Committee. I am the surviving spouse of Lt Col Richard 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, 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. It is an all-volunteer organization. We could begin with no better advocate than Eleanor Roosevelt, newly widowed, who helped make Gold Star Wives a truly national organization. Mrs. Roosevelt was an original signer of our Certificate of Incorporation and a member of the Board of Directors. Our current membership encompasses surviving spouses of service members who died while on active duty or as a result of a service connected disability during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, the wars in 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 our spouses, fathers or mothers. We are those to 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."

This hearing encompasses various House bills; some do not reflect our membership. Today, I will focus on the legislation that pertains to military and veterans’ surviving spouses.

H.R. 120  Disabled Veterans' Surviving Spouses Home Loans Act

Disabled Veterans' Surviving Spouses Home Loans Act - to provide for eligibility for housing loans guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs for the surviving spouses of certain totally-disabled veterans.

CRS Summary

Disabled Veterans' Surviving Spouses Home Loans Act - Includes as a veteran, for purposes of eligibility for housing loans guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the surviving spouse of a veteran who at the time of death was in receipt of or entitled to compensation for a service-connected disability rated totally disabling if: (1) the disability was so rated for 10 or more years preceding death; (2) the disability was so rated for at least 5 years since the veteran's discharge or release from active duty; or (3) the veteran was a former prisoner of war who died after September 30, 1999, and the disability was so rated for at least 1 year preceding death. Requires any applicable VA housing loan fee to be collected from such spouse.

This legislation will cover the surviving spouses of totally-disabled veterans who were not included in earlier legislation for VA home loan guarantees. 

Despite the implication in statement concerning fees in the above summary, it appears to this legal novice that the VA fee for surviving spouses of totally-disabled veterans is waived. Earlier legislation waived the VA fee for surviving spouses included in earlier legislation.

GSW supports the legislation.

H.R. 240 - Sole Source Government Contracts for Small Businesses - Vet Preference  

CRS Summary

Requires (current law authorizes) a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) contracting officer to award contracts to small businesses owned and controlled by veterans using other than competitive procedures for contracts above the simplified acquisition threshold in order to meet VA small business procurement contracting goals.

After the death of a veteran spouse, the surviving spouse is left behind to maintain the family’s financial stability. Some surviving spouses were in business with the veteran spouse before their death, and other surviving spouses have the means and desire to start a business on their own. GSW supports this bill and suggests that surviving spouses of veterans who died of a service-connected cause and own small businesses be included in this legislation.

GSW supports this legislation.

H.R. 1263

CRS Summary

To amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide surviving spouses with certain protections relating to mortgages and mortgage foreclosures. Amends the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)  to afford surviving spouses of  servicemembers who die while in the military and whose death is service-connected the same protections against sale, foreclosure, and seizure of property currently applicable to their husbands who while in military service are unable to meet an obligation on real or personal property.

With the economic stresses the country now faces, we have many surviving spouses who worry about losing their jobs and/or when they will be able to retire. Some are one-step away from a car that stops running or an unmet house payment.  Many of our members have a serious problem making house payments when their spouse dies. Not all surviving spouses receive the SGLI and the Death Gratuity today, as both may now be assigned to others, leaving the surviving spouse unable to meet their existing financial obligations.

Our concern is that this legislation applies only to surviving spouses of those who die on active duty. Surviving spouses of service members who subsequently die of wounds or illness should be entitled to the same protection.

GSW supports this legislation and suggests that surviving spouses of service members who subsequently die of wounds or illness be given this same protection.

H.R. 1911 - Protecting Veterans' Homes Act

CRS Summary

Amends the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to extend from 9 to 12 months after military service the period of protection against mortgage sale or foreclosure, as well as the stay of proceedings, in the case of an obligation on real property of a servicemember that originated before the period of military service.

Amends the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 to repeal the sunset date for such periods of relief.

GSW supports this legislation that would extend the time period in the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act from 9 to 12 months after military service, and repeals the sunset date for such periods of relief in the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.

GSW supports this legislation.

H.R. 2274

Latest Title: To amend title 38, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Defense to submit to Congress annual reports on the Post-9/11 Educational Assistance Program, and for other purposes.   

GSW supports this legislation and suggests that Chapter 35, Dependents Educational Assistance benefits be included in this report.

H.R. 2301-Streamlining Education Claims Processing Act of 2011

Latest Title: Payments will be made to Educational Institutions at end of semester for post 9/11 education benefits.

GSW does not support this legislation.

This legislation would reduce the VA administrative costs and remove some of the turbulence from the processing of tuition benefits; it also has the potential to put students with limited income like surviving spouses whose children are entitled to these benefits in financial jeopardy. Delaying payment of tuition until the end of the term, quarter or semester would require the student or the surviving parent to cover the tuition costs out-of-pocket, which would be a financial hardship for many students and surviving parents.

Many educational institutions have agreed to waiver payment of tuition for 60-90 days; however, there is currently no waiver in place that provides for tuition to be paid at the end of the term, quarter or semester.

Even if the educational institution agreed to waive payment of tuition until the end of the term, quarter or semester, if the student is unable to complete the course of study successfully, this bill shifts the cost of the tuition debt as well as the cost of collecting the tuition debt from the VA to the educational institution. Due to the number of severely injured veterans and the veterans who suffer from TBI and PTSD, there may be many who cannot complete the course of education covered by the tuition. Educational institutions might cease to admit students using post 9-11 educational benefits. The VA has better resources from which to collect such a tuition debt.

H.R. 2329 - Ensuring a Response for Servicemembers Act

Text of Legislation

To amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide for certain requirements for financial institutions that are creditors for obligations and liabilities covered by that Act.

This is an enforcement parameter of the SCRA-to appoint a compliance officer at creditors- it makes someone at the creditors’ office responsible for compliance (i.e., ensuring interest rates are lowered accordingly, that homes are not foreclosed when people are deployed, etc.) For the larger companies, ensures debtors can contact creditors through a phone number set up for this purpose.

The families of the Nation's fallen have already suffered the greatest loss; there is no need to make these families struggle further. We are not living the "good life”, but rather are living a modest life and sometimes existing near poverty levels. 

There are numerous news articles about the shenanigans some of the banks and other mortgage holders are pulling on those attempting to reduce their monthly mortgage payment and avoid foreclosure. This legislation would be helpful to surviving spouses who need to reduce their monthly mortgage payment.

GSW supports this legislation.

Gold Star Wives appreciates the compassionate work that members of this Subcommittee and the staff do on our behalf. We always stand ready to
provide this Subcommittee with any additional needed information. We are the voice of the surviving spouses and their children.

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT

Neither Dr. Wersel nor the Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. have received any Federal grant or contract, relevant to the subject matter of this testimony, during the current or previous two fiscal years.