Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Member, Government Relations Committee
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of all Gold Star Wives regarding H.R. 704. This bill amends title 38, U.S.C., to reduce from age 57 to 55 the age after which a surviving spouse may remarry and still retain Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC).
My name is Vivianne Wersel and I am the widow of Marine Corps. Lt. Col. Rich Wersel. My husband’s unexpected and untimely death, at age 43, one week after he returned from his second tour in Iraq on 4 February 2005, was a tragedy for my children, Richard, then age 14, Katie, then age 12, and me. I have spent the past two years grieving my husband’s death, helping my children with their grieving, and working to end survivor inequities so that we as military survivors can move on with our journeys in life. Presently, remarriage before the age of 57 results in the termination of the DIC benefit for surviving military spouses. At my present age and the age of my children, I cannot afford to live without my DIC if I remarry before the age of 57. No other VA benefit turns with remarriage at 57, but rather at 55. Equity alone dictates that DIC should be categorized similarly.
I have been employed as an audiologist since 1989 yet I have not earned a retirement since I had to change jobs with each of the nine duty stations we were assigned during our 15 years of marriage. These duty assignments resulted in limited part-time positions or some full-time work in my field. While stationed in South America my career was put on hold because audiology is very limited there. My primary job, however, was with the Marine Corps as a good Marine Corps wife, maintaining family unity and family readiness. There was never a question about staying behind when a new assignment arose simply so I could continue working to earn a retirement package. The Marine Corps was our life; we were a team. I considered myself vested in the Marine Corps when I left job after job to follow my husband after we married. The Marine Corps is still my family. My husband’s pension would have been based on his hard work as a Marine Corps officer and also mine as a supporting spouse who raised our family when he was so often deployed. Now I find myself suddenly alone raising our two children and working to end inequities in survivor benefits.
After I buried my husband, my daughter asked if I would ever marry again. I knew even then that I would lose my benefits and could not afford it for the sake of my family. I choose to stay alone as remarrying would cost me my DIC. It is not fair that a law dictates whether someone can remarry and still retain her survivor benefit or not. A military widow has given so much and should not be precluded from remarrying based on financial circumstances.
It has been two years since my husband's death and I am now out of my fog of grief. I reflect on how bazaar it is that anyone should have to wait until a certain age to find a partner again and remarry, in other words, choose financial security or an emotional one. We should not have to choose.
My children will still be in college when I am 55, and with no social security I will still need to provide for them. Losing my DIC will have an adverse affect on my family’s optimal well-being. My husband would never have thought a second marriage would compromise the quality of our lives. His advice to me in the event of his death was “go straight to the VA because they would care for me and our children.” The quality of life for my children should not be diminished simply because of a decision I might make to remarry.
My personal situation is simply an example. Gold Star Wives of America supports legislation which allows widows to remarry at age 55 without suffering the loss of a survivor benefit. Marital decisions often involve consideration of economic consequences and often those consequences are different for older surviving spouses who live on a fixed income, which includes DIC, to maintain a basic standard of living regardless of whether they remarry or not. Those who would benefit from this bill are those who are retired or are preparing to retire, those living on a fixed income, and those, like me, who have foregone continuous careers in which to build their own retirement in order to support their military spouses and family. It should not be up to the government to provide disincentives to marriage and particularly not for widows of those who served their country. The choice to remarry is one that should be left to the surviving military spouse. Her service to our country has been great even though she was never formally sworn into military service. Our government should not make this decision for her. It is hers alone to make and should be made without penalty.
I work diligently with Gold Star Wives to assure that our fallen heroes’ survivors are not left behind or forgotten. H.R. 704 is an important piece of legislation which reduces the surviving military spouse’s remarriage age from 57 to 55 and allows her to continue to retain DIC. Please show these survivors you care and will not forget their sacrifice. We urge you to do what is right and get this legislation enacted into law.
I wish to thank the Subcommittee for having this hearing and allowing me to testify in support of H.R. 704. I am happy to answer any questions you may have about this important piece of legislation to all of our surviving military spouses.