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Widow’s fight to get sheriff husband’s death designated as killed in the line of duty

Published: Apr. 16, 2021 at 11:23 AM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - COVID-19 is currently the leading cause of death of law enforcement officers in the nation, according to the non-profit Officer Down Memorial Page.

The organization lists 282 law enforcement officers whose deaths are verified as “killed in the line of duty” from COVID on their website.

Police unions and family members say that number is a lot larger, but they haven’t been able to verify their loved ones got sick on the job.

Widow Rachel Vega is one of them. Not a day goes by that she doesn’t miss her husband, Abraham.

She said the 48-year-old sheriff of Lynn County, Texas came home from work last June not feeling well. Within a few weeks, he was dead from COVID-19 complications.

“We have so many happy things going on, but the one person we want to tell, we want to share that with is gone,” she said.

Vega’s death has not been recognized as a line-of-duty death. Rachel was told she could not prove he contracted COVID at work.

“We believe 100 percent that he got sick at work,” she said. “I’m so focused on getting this honor for him.”

A line of duty designation would help Rachel apply for state and federal benefits. The state of Texas offers families of fallen officers $500,000 cash.

The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) is asking the Texas legislature to pass a bill that says if officers died of COVID-19, it is presumed they contracted it on the job. If it becomes law, it would help families apply for the state benefits.

“The least that Texas could do would be try to make these families as whole as possible. They will never be whole. Their lives are forever ruined. They’ll always have an empty chair,” said Charley Wilkison, Executive Director of CLEAT.

There are other options for financial relief. The National Fallen Officer Foundation usually provides about $2,000 for each family. But since the pandemic began, they have been overwhelmed.

“This was something we’ve never seen before as an organization,” said Foundation President Sgt. Tre Pennie. “There was no way we could keep up.”

Pennie tells me they are resuming fundraising efforts as the number of officers who have died from COVID continues to grow.

Pennie and law enforcement leaders are encouraging on-duty officers to wear personal protective equipment and get vaccinated when they can.

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