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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

Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Bradley and members of this committee, I am pleased to submit testimony for the record on behalf of Gold Star Wives on legislative issue HR 1383, pertinent to the children of our nation’s military surviving spouses.

 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 surviving spouses of military servicemembers who died while serving on active duty or as a result of a service-connected cause. GSW’s current members are surviving spouses 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.

On January 4, 2011, the Post 9/11 GI Bill Veterans Educational Assistance Act, signed into law, reduces educational benefits and is scheduled to take effect August 1, 2011.   This law would affect surviving children using the Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship. GSW supports HR 1383, which would grandfather veterans and covered individuals who enrolled in a private institution prior to April 1, 2011. This bill (HR 1383) also would include exempting veterans from the new nationwide tuition limit of $17,500. The Fry Scholarship benefit recipients are included as stated “…covered individuals entitled to educational benefits under Chapter 33 of Title 38, Unites States Code…”.   

Because of their hard work and academic dedication, some surviving children excelled and were accepted and enrolled in a high–cost private institution despite the loss of a parent.  One of our surviving children attends American University (AU) using the Fry Scholarship.  She lost her Dad in 2002 and last week lost her mother. She enrolled full time at AU for the summer; however, it is uncertain how the tuition will be paid because of the Post 9/11 GI Bill Veterans Educational Assistance Act. 

Surviving children of active duty deaths post 9/11 are eligible for the Fry Scholarship, which was designed to mirror the GI Bill. GSW is greatly encouraged by the Fry Scholarship program and request this program be included in the Yellow Ribbon Education Program. The Yellow Ribbon Education Program does not currently apply to children of the fallen, yet it would help ensure these children have a brighter future.  We believe this was an oversight when the Fry Scholarship was created with the intention of matching education benefits to mirror the New GI Bill.

As you may recall from our previous testimonies, GSW seeks improved education benefits for the surviving spouses and children, to mirror the GI Bill. When the servicemember dies, the surviving spouse is left to take over the family and run the household. This would require many spouses to return to school to learn a trade or finish a degree. For many post 9/11 surviving spouses, the servicemember paid into the Montgomery GI Bill, with thoughts that someday the benefit would be transferable.  Unfortunately, after the death, the beneficiary receives the paid premiums, rather than the benefit. There is no transferability for the surviving spouse after the death. 

We are grateful for Chapter 35 however, it does not keep up with the rising costs of housing, tuition, books and fees. In the past, GSW, as well as The Military Coalition, brought these inequities before Congress. Additionally, the time restrictions to use Chapter 35 should be removed, allowing surviving spouses of previous war eras to use their lost benefit. 

GSW seeks a voice when there are changes and or concerns with the Post 9/11 GI Bill or VA education benefits; we are stakeholders. When there is a reduction in a benefit or a delay in the entitlement, the burden places a hardship on the surviving spouse as well as the child.

GSW is grateful to Representatives Miller and Stutzman for introducing HR 1383 and for their dedication to veterans and survivors. In conclusion, each of us faithfully stood by our spouses, despite hazardous duty, multiple deployments, and numerous family moves.  Some surviving spouses never having an opportunity to have a family and others forced to serve as both mother and father to their children. Surviving spouses often lost longevity in their careers or had to give up careers due to multiple family moves. Now we are faced with the challenge of numerous inequities for our children.

Let me remind you of President Lincoln’s quote engraved on the VA headquarters building, “…to care for him who has borne the battle, and his widow and his orphan.”