This Marine Widow Turned Tragedy To Triumph

Dr. Vivianne Wersel ensured that no service member's death is discounted.
Vivianne Wersel
Vivianne Wersel

When Vivianne Wersel was starting her career as an audiologist — a health care professional who evaluates hearing and related medical concerns — she hardly thought that her career and life choices would eventually make her a fixture in the nation’s capital.

In fact, the realities of being married to an active duty Marine meant that Wersel had to restart her career every time that her family moved to a new base. “We had so many duty stations that I had to apply for a new license in every single state,” she says.

Vivianne Wersel with Lt. Col. Richard Wersel at a gala in Las Vegas in 1995.
Vivianne Wersel with Lt. Col. Richard Wersel at a gala in Las Vegas in 1995.

During the almost 15 years of her happy marriage to U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Richard Wersel, she and her family relocated nine times. Having to move so often made Wersel feel as if she had to restart her career with every new home. “I’d just proven myself. Now I get to do it all over again,” she says, adding that she felt as though she had lost parity with her husband.

Wersel greatly respected her husband’s dedication to his career, a trait that the two shared. According to Wersel, her husband had wanted to be a Marine since he was 13 years old. When the U.S. declared the War on Terror, he deployed to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After Lt. Col. Wersel’s second tour in Iraq, just one week after returning home from deployment on February 4, 2005, he suffered a heart attack while lifting weights at the gym and died very suddenly. His memorial services were held at Camp Lejeune and in Baghdad, and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

A few months following her husband’s death, Wersel heard that the Department of Defense had increased the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI) and death benefit gratuity. As a widow with two children, Wersel inquired but quickly learned that she was not eligible: The enhanced benefits were only available if the spouse’s death occurred in a combat zone or as a result of a training accident, meaning that if Wersel’s husband had died under the exact same circumstances only one week earlier, she would have been eligible.

“I was third-generation Marine Corps. That’s not the way you treat families,” Wersel says, explaining that she felt that the distinction between deaths insulted her husband’s years of service and added injury to her grief. “When my casualty officer told me that I would not be included in the enhanced benefits, I said, “The hell I will. I will be included. You just watch.”

The Wersel family in July 2003 when Lt. Col. Richard Wersel returned from his first tour in Iraq where he served on Task Force Tarawa as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Wersel family in July 2003 when Lt. Col. Richard Wersel returned from his first tour in Iraq where he served on Task Force Tarawa as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Finding New Purpose

At 2 a.m. the next day, Wersel awoke, compelled to write a letter to her elected officials explaining how she felt that her husband’s death had been classified as less worthy by the new legislation. She addressed her email to the President of the United States, her senator, her congressman and a well-known journalist who covered military updates.

The journalist wrote back almost immediately to ask if he could write her story. The article, which was published shortly thereafter, gained attention on the Hill. “I get a call from Senator Kerry’s office,” Wersel explains. “And they said, ’If we can get an amendment to the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] 2006, would you work it?’ Well, I didn’t even know what ‘work it’ meant, but I said, ‘Yes. Sure I will.’”

The amendment was submitted by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) on July 21, 2005, and was co-sponsored by Senator Kerry (D-MA) and Senator John Warner (R-VA). Once the amendment passed, Wersel had to fulfill her agreement to “work it,” which meant canvassing the legislature.

Wersel took her packets door-to-door in the Cannon Building, asking to speak to the person in charge of military affairs. “I said, ‘Could you please support this so that all deaths were created equal, so that all families are taken care of the same, regardless of location or circumstance of death?’ I had no understanding of committees; no understanding of the House or Senate.”

The resting place of Lt. Col. Richard Wersel in Arlington National Cemetery.
The resting place of Lt. Col. Richard Wersel in Arlington National Cemetery.

Throughout the year, Wersel returned to D.C. again and again to walk the halls. If she didn’t have a babysitter, she’d bring her kids, but she persisted, presenting the amendment door-to-door in the Congressional office buildings.

Just before Christmas, Wersel received another phone call from Senator Kerry’s office, this time with congratulations: The bill had passed. The pay was retroactive for anyone whose loved ones had died on or after October 7, 2001. “The difference in the payout was about $238,000, tax-free,” she says. “So that was a significant amount of money that made a lot of difference for many families.”

It took a while for the magnitude of her accomplishment to sink in. “Holy moly!” Wersel says. “I changed the law!”

From Purpose To Passion

Following her success on the Hill, Wersel became more active with Gold Star Wives of America, an organization dedicated to supporting the family members of those who lost their lives while serving in the U.S. armed forces. She joined the government relations committee, eventually serving as chair.

Wersel’s own experience, both as a survivor and as a professional audiologist, played a role in her participation before Congress. From her days providing care to elected officials, she understood the importance of remaining bipartisan. At Walter Reed, for example, she had gone so far to switch out the photos in her office to match the party affiliation of the patient. “You got to play both sides — in a good way,” Wersel says, “because you have to educate both sides to influence them.”

Wersel also understood that her own experience would speak volumes, and she readily shared the hardships that she encountered as a professional audiologist and widow of a service member.

A note that Lt. Col. Richard Wersel left one morning for Vivianne Wersel in January 2005 "out of the clear blue."
A note that Lt. Col. Richard Wersel left one morning for Vivianne Wersel in January 2005 "out of the clear blue."

When advocating for educational assistance benefits, Wersel illustrated for congress how the medical industry had changed its professional requirements for audiology, and stipulated that she would need a doctorate to continue practicing. As a single-parent with two children, she needed the assistance and was eligible, but faced significant challenges obtaining any benefits from Veteran’s Affairs.

Wersel testified before congress more than 20 times about a range of issues that affected the families and survivors of service members. But the bulk of Wersel’s appearances on the Hill were concerned with the “Widow’s Tax,” a deduction in a survivor’s retirement benefits from their unrelated VA benefits. The Widow’s Tax could cost widows tens-of-thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetime.

After 14 years of appearing before Congress and lobbying to change the law, a bipartisan effort to repeal the Widow’s Tax was finally successful — only a few months following Wersel’s official retirement.

Passing It On

Wersel’s contribution — both professionally as an audiologist and civically as a patriot — was acknowledged when her retirement was recognized in the Congressional Record in October 2019. But even though Wersel is now officially retired, she is not the type of woman to ever stop working. She continues to consult as an audiologist, but also consults on government advocacy, giving presentations around the country on how to approach one’s elected officials.

“The passion is so there, that’s why I like teaching advocacy,” says Wersel. “If I can move a mountain with no knowledge of how the House and Senate committees work, so can you. And this is what I try to tell people.”

Dr. Vivianne Wersel in Washington, D.C. in 2018.
Dr. Vivianne Wersel in Washington, D.C. in 2018.

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