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Witness Testimony of 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         

Chairman Hall, Ranking Member Lamborn and Members of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, I am pleased to be here today to testify on behalf of Gold Star Wives of America. My name is Vivianne Wersel, Chair of the Gold Star Wives’ Government Relations Committee. I am the widow of Lt. Col. Richard Wersel, Jr., USMC, who died suddenly on February 4, 2005, one week after returning from his second tour of duty in Iraq.

Gold Star Wives of America, Incorporated (GSW), founded in 1945, is a Congressionally Chartered organization of spouses of military members who died while serving on active duty or as a result of a service-connected disability.  GSW is an all-volunteer organization. We could begin with no better advocate than Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, at the time newly widowed, who helped make Gold Star Wives a truly “national” organization.  Mrs. Roosevelt was an original signer of our Certificate of Incorporation as a member of our Board of Directors.  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.

We begin by thanking this committee and our government for providing essential services necessary to help us through our loss, many services being done well, in a caring and helpful way. But I also want to stress the importance of staying vigilant so that no one who is grieving the loss of a loved one will have to endure indignities or a lack of benefits because of the lack of knowledge. Therefore, we need consistent and relevant assistance before and at the time of the death, and for some period of time thereafter.  While there have been huge strides made over the last several years in alleviating problems with benefit and eligibility misinformation coming to those who are grieving, confusion about the complete benefits available will be a normal beginning, with the best of information provided.  We owe information to those in the throes of grief about the all the benefits available with the best information provided. We owe it to these families to help secure their futures with the most accurate information possible at an appropriate time-- when it is ready to be received--because the confusing array of decisions that must be made have consequences for the rest of that their lives.

VA Fiduciary Program

Gold Star Wives was unaware of VA’s Fiduciary Program until we were asked to testify at this hearing.  As we delved into the subject matter, the research became a game of twenty questions.  It’s difficult to critique or make suggestions for a program of which we were unaware. There have been several hearings about the Fiduciary Program over the last seven years; today is our first exposure to this VA Fiduciary Program. Therefore, Gold Star Wives’ main concern about the Fiduciary Program is the lack of information provided to eligible surviving spouses. Other concerns are the hardships surviving spouses encounter as well as the limitations of the VA fiduciary program.

Lack of Information

From the perspective of Gold Star Wives, the major problem is a lack of publicity and available information.  There is no mention of the Fiduciary Program in the VA Handbook for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors. The surviving spouse needs prior knowledge of this existing program in order to obtain information on the VA website.  Yet, according to VBA, there are 35,000 surviving spouses who are beneficiaries in the VA Fiduciary Program.  This is a third of the total of  the approximate 109, 000 participating in this program.  Furthermore, this subject has neither been discussed in prior testimonies that included Gold Star Wives nor has it been a topic discussed in the VA/DOD Survivor Forum quarterly meetings.  Lack of information and participation does not promote optimal care for the surviving families.  How can we improve a program if we have no knowledge of the existing program? We have many questions that we hope will be answered as the result of this meaningful hearing today.

 Hardships

Many Gold Star Wives were their spouse’s fiduciary before their military spouse died. Some were young and required an annual bonding fee because their credit score was not sufficient.  Why do spouses have to pay significant fees to be bonded? 

In 2002, Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony Palmer collapsed while playing basketball.  He was kept alive via medical devices.  When the respirator was removed, he unexpectedly continued living; however, he was totally incapacitated.  He was then medically retired, but when he died two years later, his VA disability compensation suddenly stopped.  His wife and two toddlers were left without support.  What role did the VA Fiduciary Program play for this new Gold Star Wife with young children? Mrs. Palmer sought assistance from the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society when the disability compensation ceased.  At that time, the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society referred her to Gold Star Wives. 

Limitations

When the SGLI was assigned by name to Mrs. Palmer’s two small children, she had to pay several thousand dollars for a civilian court guardianship. Why is this required when she is the biological parent of the small children?  She is one of the many young widows with children who are experiencing this problem. Why is the Fiduciary Program not used for SGLI, which is administered by the VA?

Mrs. Dora Aja married her college sweetheart in 1953. His heart attack in 1976 eventually left him totally incapacitated.  She has to be bonded to be a fiduciary at a cost of $250.00 annually. When purchasing a home to be closer to family she had to receive permission from VA and the Defense Finance and Accounting System to purchase a home. She must submit a spreadsheet of all her expenses.  Accountability is important; however, why does she have to pay to be bonded?  Also, are the spouses provided with the tools they need to monitor the administration required from them annually?  Mrs. Aja stated, “I have cared for him and loved him for over fifty years and the government treats me like a juvenile. It is a good thing that my husband is not aware of what is happening because he would be angry.”  She is not a widow or a veteran, and she is not treated as the dedicated military spouse that she is even though she is a soon to be a Gold Star Wife.

There are approximately 35,000 surviving spouses who are incapacitated and have fiduciaries.   Who takes the lead when the surviving spouse becomes incapacitated?  If the surviving spouse wasn’t a fiduciary for the veteran spouse, they may well not know anything about the program and, by extension, neither would their children.  How many spouses (current and surviving) are also fiduciaries for the nearly 18,800 adult disabled children in the program?

Concerns

What I can report to you today is that our number one concern with the VA Fiduciary Program is our lack of information. It is imperative that we are provided more information on the Fiduciary Program, so it provides meaningful support to surviving spouses as well as the soon-to-be surviving spouses who find themselves in this position. As the result of today’s hearing we hope our questions will be answered.

Gold Star Wives of America has the following questions:

  1. Are there ongoing problems with the program that have yet to be fixed?  
  2. Where and how is this program publicized? 
  3. What is the protocol for the information to be provided in a timely fashion?
  4. Is it only provided to those for whom the program is necessary? 
  5. What training is available for the challenged spouse who is caring for an incapacitated, perhaps dying veteran, who does not have the accounting and clerical skills to manage the tedious, demanding paperwork required by the annual audit?
  6. Some may find it necessary to hire a professional to do the reports for the audit at additional expense to them. Is there funding for this assistance?
  7. At what point is a fiduciary necessary?  Who makes the determination?
  8. Could the VA select someone other than the spouse? 

  Thank you for this opportunity to testify.  The families of the Nation’s fallen have already suffered the greatest loss; there is no need to make these families struggle financially unnecessarily.  Gold Star Wives appreciates the compassionate work which members of this Subcommittee and the staff do on our behalf.  We always stand at the ready to provide this Subcommittee with any additional needed information.