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Witness Testimony 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

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, I am pleased to provide testimony on behalf of the Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. (GSW) on issues at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) that are important to our nation’s military widows and widowers. Our intent is to inform this committee of the experiences of our members and to help improve the ceremony for others.   My name is Dr. Vivianne Wersel, and I am the 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.  My husband was interred in ANC on February 23, 2005.

GSW is an all-volunteer Veterans Service Organization founded in 1945 and Congressionally Chartered in 1980. It is an organization of surviving spouses of military service members who died while on active duty or as the result of a service-connected cause. Our current members are surviving spouses of military service 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. 

Our primary mission is to support GSW members after the death of their spouse and provide a place to connect with other military surviving spouses. We also provide information about military and veterans’ benefits and assist surviving spouses who are experiencing difficulties accessing those benefits.  We strive to raise the awareness of Congress, the public, and the military community to the many inequities existing in survivor programs and benefits.

The deceased spouses of many of GSW members are interred in ANC. Many of our members relocated to the Arlington area just to be near where their loved one is buried. It is important for some of us to visit our loved ones and bond with other families in similar circumstances.

Prior to the recent change in administration, some of our members endured unfortunate experiences with the interment process such as the waiting time for interment,  paperwork for the headstone, a lack of information about the protocol of the ceremony.  Many of these experiences occurred when they were wading through their grief and unfortunately, disrupted the integrity of the ceremony.   In preparation for this testimony, information was gathered from interments that occurred between 2005 and the present.  

We consistently hear from our members that the wait for burial can be a most difficult period while in their fog of grief.  GSW seeks to raise awareness to the committee as well as ANC in the hopes the situation can be improved with the wait time and issues with storage.  One GSW member, Nikole, lost her husband on February 24, 2011.  He was an active duty JAG officer in the U.S. Army.  His civilian funeral was the week following his death; however, he could not be buried at ANC before June due to the “wait” time.  He is being buried this very day as we sit in this hearing, one day shy of four full months from his death.  In addition to the wait, the widow has been asked for a $125 per week fee for storage of her husband’s body.  The Army will pay for the service; however, not until the body has been buried.  Therefore, in the meantime, the funeral home is requesting payment from the widow.  This widow was also put in the untenable position of sorting through a disagreement between the Ft. Belvoir Casualty Affairs Office and the funeral home about who was responsible to supply the casket, each pointing to the other.  She ended up running short on time and getting a casket that was basically a “scratch and dent” discontinued model from the warehouse.  She could have buried him sooner and avoided the storage fees if she had him buried without honors, but he served his country well and deserves the honors. Waiting for the burial of a loved one is very emotional as interment is the final goodbye. There are three key players/organizations involved in a burial at Arlington:  ANC itself, the Casualty/Mortuary Affairs Offices for each of the services and the funeral home.  It is logical for Arlington to take the lead and provide the appropriate information to everyone involved, including the surviving family.

Typically, for active duty deaths, burial is within a reasonable amount of time; however, some families of servicemembers who are eligible for burial at ANC sometimes have to wait for months for their interment.  This is emotionally draining as well as a time of financial burden.

In the U S Army Inspector General Report completed in February 2010 and amended in November 2010, the average wait time for interring/inurning of service members killed in action was 10-14 days; the average wait for veterans was 4-6 weeks.  GSW is concerned that the wait time for veterans, even those who die on active duty, is now four months or more.

The majority of GSW issues pertained to the paperwork for the headstone that is presented to the family at the time of the interment.  As you can imagine, that is a particularly difficult time for families to be asked to complete the paperwork. Most are merely questioned if the information presented is accurate and are not informed of options for additional information that can be inscribed such as “Loving Husband and Father.” The information provided is not always consistent and in some cases is non-existent. GSW seeks improvement of this process. 

Lisa, another GSW, stated that when she arrived at the Administration Center prior to her husband’s service, she was escorted to the desk where she was asked to select a design for her husband’s headstone.  The Arlington representative escorting her told her she had to hurry because she did not have much time.  She needed to correct the date of death on the paperwork and then as she was trying to select from the hundreds of spiritual symbols, the representative sternly reminded her to hurry or they would miss the scheduled flyover.  If time was so critical, perhaps they should have waited to complete the paperwork until the service was finished.  Information must be provided to the families at the right time so decisions can be made outside of the emotion of the day of interment.

After the ceremony, some families felt they were not given enough time at the graveside. Some were not allowed to stay through the lowering of the casket into the grave. There were some concerns about why non-Iraq/Afghanistan service members (or spouses) were placed in Section 60 and some Iraq/Afghanistan service members were not given the option of being buried in Section 60 and were placed in other sections. 

In October 2010, Ms. Kathryn Condon, the new Executive Director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, held a town hall meeting to listen to survivor issues and concerns.  Taking the time to meet with individuals and listening to their concerns was an important first step in communication with Gold Star Families.  Ms. Condon was truly involved in the discussions and did her best to answer questions.  With the exception of the “wait” time for the interment, Ms. Condon addressed the issues brought before her.   Ms. Condon also presented a brochure that was being prepared for the families to help alleviate the problems with communication.  It was in the final stages waiting for policy approval. Ms. Condon’s brochure addressing pertinent information regarding a burial at Arlington is vital in this communications process.  

There has been confusion with misplaced deceased servicemembers, a lack of communication when policy changes, problems with lithochrome headstones and headstone scripture, etc.  Ms. Condon did her best to address all of these concerns.   This was very cathartic for all who attended.

Recommendations:

  GSW seeks a status update from the ANC town hall meeting recommendations to ANC:

  • Approval of  ANC brochure, to include protocol and policy
  • Establish email list to notify survivors of events and changes to protocol, rules and policy
  • Implement working group of stakeholders to identify issues be established to address the concerns of family members
  • Host town hall meetings periodically so that stakeholders may raise their concerns in an open forum

GSW seeks decreasing the wait time for interment. The waiting time for interment and the costs involved in storing the body for long periods also need to be addressed.

We are pleased to have Ms. Condon and the Army as the gatekeepers to our loved ones garden as well as our future resting place.   GSW recommendations are suggested to help improve the quality of the service of the interment at ANC, to inspire trust and exceed the stakeholders’ expectations and to increase the understanding of the stakeholders’ needs.  

Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony.  I am available for any questions you may have.

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.