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04-18-06, 01:54 PM
Survivors need better help, widow testifies
Marine’s widow tells lawmakers aid process is unclear

By Rick Maze
Times staff writer

Marine Corps widow Vivianne Wersel says getting government help is frustrating because benefits are complex and prying correct information from people is difficult.

“It shouldn’t be dependent on us to ask the right question,” Wersel said March 16 as she testified before a House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs.

“The sacrifice of our husbands’ lives should not be compounded by lack of information, confusing or erroneous information that prevent our widows from accessing the assistance needed,” Wersel said.

“If there is one message I could leave you with today, it is that there is never enough good communication — good, accurate, thorough information that does not depend on the new widow to know the right questions to ask while in the middle of her grief dealing with the death of her spouse,” she said.

Wersel’s husband, Richard, a Marine lieutenant colonel, died in February 2005 after suffering a heart attack just days after returning from Iraq. She became politically active upon learning that she and her two children were not eligible for the same death benefits as survivors of troops who die in combat zones.

Casualty-assistance officers assigned by the military to help families after a death don’t know all of the answers and are not around long enough to provide help when it is needed, Wersel said.

Those officers do the best they can, but don’t always have the latest information and “a lot of information is difficult for even them to understand,” she said.

Moreover, she said, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is supposed to provide help and counseling, does not seem “ready for younger widows.”

“Getting the right information to the right people at the right time is important,” she said. “We must recognize the fog of grief that surrounds a new widow.”

It can take six months to a year before widows are even ready to face such issues. And once they are, it is critical that complex benefits are explained to them in a way they can easily understand, she said.

“Information provided can be confusing,” she said. “We have seen confusion over coverage of funeral costs, the length of time it takes to get a [health care benefits] card, and perhaps the most complicated, the implementation of new laws, how and when they get implemented and guidance on what a widow does while awaiting implementation. We have had multiple instances of failure to change information, sometimes as critical as [insurance] beneficiary information, which, as you can imagine, can be distressful at time of death.”

One key problem, she said, are “nonresponsible counselors,” who she described as “not taking charge of an emotionally trying situation, not following through with appointments, approaching the widow with cold tones.”

These actions, she said, show “a lack of regard for the emotional state a new widow is in.”

“Whenever the ultimate sacrifice is given, there is family left behind. When our nation asks some to give their lives, we also ask some to continue their lives with a chasm so large it is difficult to transgress. Let us show the spirit of this nation by not forgetting these widows in their time of need, whose numbers grow daily.”