has been breaking news for and about military
people since 1977. After service in the Coast
Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior
editor with Army Times Publishing Company,
Tom launched "Military Update,"
his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994.
"Military Update" features timely
news and analysis on issues affecting active
duty members, reservists, retirees and their
families. Tom also edits a reader reaction
column, "Military Forum." The online
"home" for both features is Military.com.
Tom’s freelance articles have appeared in
numerous magazines including The New Yorker,
Reader's Digest and Washingtonian.
His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied,
on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of
Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held
prisoner of war in American history, is available
in hardcover and paperback.
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
Denying the increases to survivors of 3000 other servicemembers 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 a 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
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
On Sept. 1, maximum coverage under Servicemembers'
Group Life Insurance (SGLI) also will climb for all servicemembers
to $400,000, up from $250,000. The government also will pay the SGLI
premiums on $150,000 of that coverage for servicemembers in combat
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rich Wersel, with wife Vivianne, daughter
Katie and son Richard, in July 2004, the day before his second
deployment to Iraq.
Until the SGLI increases kick in, the law provides for a special death
gratuity of $150,000, retroactive to October 7, 2001, and, again,
only for survivors of those who died in a combat zone or in training
So Vivianne's benefits won't change. She received a $12,420 death
gratuity and $250,000 in SGLI. She is ineligible 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
"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 firefighter killed by stress-related
heart attacks and strokes.
"What I want to do is stick out my red flag and say, 'Hey, don't just
look at this pathology of death. Look at his history'" of service
as an infantry officer, Vivianne said. On his first tour in Iraq,
Wersel was the command operations center's ground watch officer for
Task Force Tarawa for which he received the Meritorious Service Medal.
His award commends the precision and clarity of his reports to commanders
during the battle of An Nasiriyah.
Three days before Rich Wersel's death, Gen. William L. Nyland, assistant
commandant of the Marine Corps, joined other military leaders in warning
Congress against establishing two levels of death benefits.
"I firmly believe that we would do great harm to our servicemen and
women…were we to make such distinctions in one's service," Nyland
He said it would be wrong, for example, to pay a family more because
a loved one died in Iraq versus in car accident after "a late night
at the club, trying to come to grips with what he may have seen over
The House-passed 2006 defense authorization bill would make the two-tier
benefit permanent. The Senate bill would too, as written, but floor
amendments are still possible. An aide to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)
said he might propose again to extend the benefit increases retroactively
to all active duty deaths since Oct. 7, 2001. An identical amendment
was dropped from the supplemental bill earlier this year in final
negotiations with the House.