I met my husband when I was finishing graduate school at San Diego State University. It was a storybook romance—he was the general’s aide-de camp and I was the colonel’s daughter. Lt. Col. Rich Wersel was an outstanding Marine, accepting every position and assignment with the utmost dedication and sense of honor. He was a part of the initial invasion in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He even volunteered to go back to Iraq in 2005, taking the place of a fellow Marine who was experiencing a personal hardship. Seven days after he returned home from his second tour, he died suddenly of cardiac arrest. It was a regular day that had begun as innocuously as any other, and there I stood at the end of it with my life’s plan entirely changed. Suddenly I could see time splitting into two separate pieces, categorizing everything into “before” and “after” this devastating event.
Despite feeling frozen in grief, I worked harder than I ever had upon realizing that I would now be caring for myself and for our two kids alone. I decided to stay in the Camp Lejeune area and maintain the familiarity and lifestyle that my children needed while continuing to work as an audiologist with Onslow County Schools in North Carolina.
When the time came to work out the logistics of Rich’s military death benefit, I had unknowingly stumbled into the political arena. Shortly after my husband’s death in May 2005, Congress enacted a two-tier death benefit, and increased the military death benefits for active duty service members, however, the criteria did not include all deaths, and the increase of financial benefit depended on the circumstances and location of the death. Unfortunately, this excluded many families, including mine, from receiving this benefit.
On paper, this two-tier system seemed to be an attempt to allot a service member more financial honor for dying in combat or training. What it created, however, was a terrible sense of disparity for any surviving family who supported their service member through the same deployments, only to be told they deserve less should their family member die within a week of their return. I quickly realized there was a pattern, a distinction between types of deaths and how families were cared for or how deaths were valued—whether it had monetary or sentimental. It was time for me to speak up! As a result of this injustice, I became an advocate with zero knowledge of the legislative system. I was successful and instrumental in changing a law that affected thousands of military surviving families. I lobbied at the U.S. Capitol to change the two-tier death benefit. Using my husband’s case, an amendment was passed in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2006.
Not knowing where to start, I began my journey with advocacy by sending emails. I sent my story to the president of the United States, my members of Congress, and to a syndicated journalist named Tom Philpott. I had no prior experience with writing to my elected officials but made my message personal, including attaching a picture of our last family photo. I received a response from Mr. Philpott the next day who wanted to help me and other widows by spreading the word. I agreed to go public and in two weeks he published a feature story on my case.
On July 7, 2005, my story went out all over the world and, as a result, I received a call from a staffer in Sen. John Kerry’s (D-MA) congressional office. I was overwhelmed and surprised. He stated that there were some members of Congress who wanted to fix this issue but would need my help. I had no idea what it meant, but this felt like a victory, so I adamantly agreed and pushed forward. It was certainly a risk to expose my story to the world; it yielded a great deal of support but also made me aware of the fact that every issue has its opposition.
July 21, 2005, my case was heard on the Senate floor in discussing an amendment to the Defense bill, the NDAA. I received an e-mail from Mr. Philpott attached with notes from the Senate floor and my amendment, S. 1376 to the NDAA. This was a proposal to remove the two-tier death benefit so that all deaths would be paid equal enhanced benefits, backdated to October 7, 2001. After this critical step, it was up to me to keep traction on this amendment: now it was time for me to go to Washington.
I was not familiar with the inner and outer workings of Capitol Hill, but I do recall I was not afraid. I had a passion for righting wrongs and possessed a tenacious energy to go forth. I arrived at my hotel, unfamiliar with the Metro subway system, feeling slightly like a country mouse in the big city. I asked the concierge how to get to the Hill, he proceeded to tell me to “get on the yellow and change to the blue line, get off at Capitol South.” I remember walking out of the Metro and there it was, the Cannon House Office Building. I was pleased that, in my fog of grief, I was able to find my way. I met up with two elderly Gold Star Wives who came with me to meet my Congress member’s staff. After our meeting, I took off and started walking the halls, going door to door.
I made many copies of notes from the Senate floor, aggressively taking in any helpful information or contacts on which I could get my hands. During these early visits to the Hill, I had no idea what the big picture looked like or what the end product of fixing this issue would mean for me. My amendment would eventually go on to become the foundation for working on a much bigger bill to change the law. But at that time, all I knew was that I had an amendment.
In this initial journey into advocacy, I had no strategies. I did not know about committees or even the process of how a bill becomes a Law. It was only a few years later that I stumbled upon the Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.” Elementary as it might sound, I still recommend it. My only constant was that I was enthusiastic and aggressive. I flooded congressional offices like a journalist with a breaking story, passing out my handouts door to door with no appointments, and yet, I was seen. Once I had my elevator speech down it became easy, getting my point across quickly was key. My beginner’s luck landed me in the right place and the right time. By the end of my visit, I had the Senate support, I needed the House support and that is exactly where I was, thanks to the concierge.
I continued this effort running up to Washington, DC, from North Carolina many times, even meeting with the members of Congress. The Defense bill was in conference for a decision on what would be included. At this juncture, all I could do was hope that my issue would make the cut and stay in the Defense bill. On December 20, 2005, I received calls from many veteran service organizations stating, “You did it!”
The bill passed and I had won. The two-tier death benefit was fixed and all families were taken care of in the same way, regardless of circumstance or location of death. The bill was signed into law on January 6, 2006, and all families affected were paid $238,000, dated back to October 7, 2001.
The long road to advocacy was not necessarily an easy one. There were days I wanted to stay home, but quitting my job and forgoing my passion was not an option. I had the civic courage to speak up and educate others on what I believed was wrong and needed to be fixed.
That day may have started out as seemingly innocuous as any other, but life has changed drastically since the day my husband died. I hope to look back and know that I did my best, for my children and myself, in all aspects of life because I spoke up with no fear of failing.
Ever since this first victory in advocacy, I have testified 20 times before Congress, and even joined the American Academy of Audiology of Government Relations Committee. I have continued to fight for support for our surviving military families, and will continue to raise awareness for the betterment of their lives.