By Tom Philpott : CNJ columnist
Last February, a week after returning from his second, stress-filled tour in Iraq, Marine Lt. Col. Richard M. Wersel Jr., 43, had a fatal heart attack while lifting weights in a base gymnasium at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Had the decorated Marine died under identical circumstances in Iraq, his widow, Vivianne, would be eligible for an additional $238,000 in death benefits to help raise her two children, ages 12 and 14.
But Congress earlier this year, adopting a plan agreed to by top Pentagon civilians but opposed by military leaders, established the first two-tier military death benefits package. It also voted to pay the higher benefits retroactively for war zone deaths and combat-training or hazardous duty deaths, back to Oct. 7, 2001, the start of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Denying the increases to survivors of 3,000 other service members who died on active duty since late 2001 has begun to raise morale-jarring issues for military leaders, the kind they warned Congress that a two-tier benefit might create.
Vivianne Wersel said she has no doubt that multiple deployments over 30 months, including trips to Central and South America to train indigenous troops to fight drug traffickers, were the “silent bullet’’ that took her husband’s life. Before his death, she said, Rich had no history of heart disease, hypertension or cholesterol problems.
His final assignment was with Multi-National Force Iraq in Baghdad, serving as plans chief for the Civil Military Operations Directorate. Vivianne heard from colleagues that Rich had worked many long days there, under tight deadlines, in a tense environment that included random mortar attacks.
Vivianne said she isn’t angry with the Marine Corps whose efforts to help her and the children have been “fantastic.’’
“Rich died doing what he loved most,’’ she said. “Even going to Iraq the second time, if he had to do it over again, he would have gone. But don’t deny my children benefits as if he wasn’t a casualty of war.’’
The Defense Department has begun to pay retroactively the higher death benefits approved as part of the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror and Tsunami Relief Act 2005. The lump sum death gratuity is now $100,000, up from $12,420, for survivors of members who die in a combat zone or while training for combat or performing hazardous duty.
On Sept. 1, maximum coverage under Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) also will climb for all service members to $400,000, up from $250,000. The government also will pay the SGLI premiums on $150,000 of that coverage for service members in combat zones.
Until the SGLI increases kick in, the law provides for a special death gratuity of $150,000, retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, and, again, only for survivors of those who died in a combat zone or in training for combat.
So Vivianne’s benefits won’t change. She received a $12,420 death gratuity and $250,000 in SGLI. She is ineligible for the added $237,580.
Vivianne said she was reconciled to this disparity until her children began to be denied other perks intended to honor the special sacrifice of families who lost loved ones to the war. One non-profit offers small scholarships, another gives these children a laptop computer. It’s as though her own kids didn’t lose a father fighting for his country, Vivianne said.
The final straw was learning that her daughter, Katie, was ineligible for a “comfort quilt’’ intended for the children of Marines killed in war.
“While it is true your husband was serving in the military,’’ the non-profit group told Vivianne in an e-mail, “he was not in an active war theater at the time he died. He lost his life back here at home.’’
Defense officials argue there is precedence for a two-tier death benefit. Under the federal Public Safety Officers Benefits Program, police officers, firefighters and other safety officials receive a death benefit of $275,658 if killed by traumatic injury in the line of duty. Ironically, given Vivianne’s situation, Congress in 2003 extended eligibility for that payment to police and firefighters killed by stress-related heart attacks and strokes.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: