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Death benefit too low?

Military pays $12,000; hike to $100,000 sought

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Miyuki Cawley lives the hectic life of a single mother.

Before her husband was killed serving his country in Iraq, she knew a much simpler life. Grocery trips, picking up the kids from school and operating a small tailoring business in her spare time have been replaced with waiting tables, late nights studying and finding a minute to see her kids.

"Everything has changed," Cawley said. "There is not one aspect of my life that is still the same."

Staff Sgt. James W. Cawley, 41, died March 29, 2003, during a firefight near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah when he was struck by a coalition Humvee. He was the first Utahn to die in the conflict in Iraq.

As a Salt Lake City police detective, James Cawley often worked overtime to make sure his wife could stay at home and raise their two children, Cecil, 10, and Keiko, 8.

When he went off to war, James Cawley told his family not to worry about what could happen to them should he die — the military would take care of them, his sister Julie Cawley Hanson said.

When he died, the military wrote Miyuki Cawley a $6,000 military death benefit check — which was sliced in half after taxes.

"I just couldn't believe if he really didn't know or didn't understand, or if he was just naive enough to think that was enough," Cawley Hanson said.

The spouse's death benefit has since doubled and is tax exempt, but several national lawmakers say that's still not enough.

During the past week, lawmakers — both Democrat and Republican — have introduced bills to Congress that will boost death and insurance payments to survivors of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., introduced legislation Wednesday that would increase the one-time tax-free death gratuity payment for military spouses to $100,000.

The Honoring Every Requirement of Exemplary Service (HEROES) Act would also increase the maximum life-insurance coverage for service members to $400,000.

And on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., introduced similar legislation that would also increase the death gratuity to a one-time tax free payment of $100,000. But under Frist's plan, the maximum coverage for military life insurance would cap at $300,000. The bill would also extend medical insurance coverage to children of deceased service members.

Both bills would apply retroactively to cover those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Several other Republicans have been working on similar proposals to help the families of troops who died in combat.

"For giving up one's life, it's just not enough," Cawley's sister Kim Coons said of the current military death benefits. "We need to do more for them."

Cawley's family lobbied local leaders for the increase in military death benefits shortly after his death.

Cawley Hanson met with Sen. Orrin Hatch and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jim Matheson to raise awareness on how tough it is for the families of those who died fighting for their country.

"We owe it to them to take care of their families," Cawley Hanson said. "No matter how you feel about this war or any other war, anyone that gives service to our country, we should make sure their families are being taken care of."

Miyuki Cawley is doing what she can to make it on her own. She's working part time at a local restaurant and studying accounting at the University of Utah.

It's a different life. But she doesn't want pity. A local philanthropist recently offered Cawley a "substantial amount" of money to pay for her expenses, but she refused to take it.

"She said, 'There are people that need it more than we do,' " Cawley Hanson said.

E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com