‘We Live With Memorial Day Every Day’: Wife And Son Remember Army Maj. Paul Voelke
This is a Memorial Day like no other.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancelation of the public events that would normally take place on the last Monday of May as Americans honor the sacrifice of those who have died in the service to this country.
Fallen military men and women leave loved ones behind, known as Gold Star Families. One of those families, the Voelkes, is remembering their husband and father, Army Maj. Paul Voelke.
Paul Voelke was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. He was a West Point graduate who had served in the Army for 14 years — including four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was just 36 years old when he died.
“For us, we live with Memorial Day every day,” says Traci Voelke, Paul Voelke’s high school sweetheart and wife.
“The passage of time makes things easier,” she says, but this time of year is when the “floodgates” of memories pour open — Memorial Day, Father’s Day and Paul Voelke’s birthday are all within the period of a month.
She says in some ways, she and her two boys — Andrew and Benjamin — look forward to Memorial Day to honor Paul Voelke by sharing “warm memories” of him with friends and family.
But this year is harder without the physical human connection due to social distancing measures. Normally, the Voelkes gather in Washington, D.C. with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, known as TAPS, a program that “has been a tremendous part” of the family’s healing process.
“I think that human connection is absolutely essential to the healing process. It has been for me and my sons,” she says. “… Of course, this year, it’s going to be a little bit different.”
Normally on Memorial Day, along with other families in TAPS, Gold Star Families would share stories of their lost loved ones for peer support. She says she reminisces on “the little things” such as being together as a family at sporting events or how the door sounded when Paul Voelke would come home.
Benjamin Voelke, who was just 6 years old when his father died, is now 14 years old. He says he wants people to know how much it hurts to have lost his dad.
“I remember that he almost like never yelled at me and he was always super kind no matter what,” Benjamin says. “And he was just a fun, caring, sweet person.”
He has a bit more time to think about his future career but says he’s considering joining the military as an option.
“I definitely am interested in serving in the military and following in his footsteps, but I definitely have a long time before that would actually happen,” he says.
As her two sons continue to grow older, Traci Voelke says she tries to keep her husband’s memory alive for them by telling stories, looking at pictures and talking to Paul’s friends.
For Veterans Day in 2009, Paul Voelke wrote a newspaper essay that outlined why he decided to serve the country.
“There are two reasons,” he wrote for the Times Herald-Record. “The first is that I love helping people, and the second is that the people I serve alongside — soldiers, Army civilians (and sailors, airmen and Marines, too) — are a truly amazing group. They represent the best in all of us. Dedicated to their nation and their comrades, they are selfless and loyal. And I consider myself fortunate to be among them.”
Traci Voelke says she keeps a copy of the article hanging on her office wall to serve as inspiration. She now serves as an Army civilian who works in legal assistance, helping both Army and surviving families.
“That message is what I go back and read every Memorial Day, every Veterans Day, and it’s what motivates me in my life to continue and work as hard as I can for our nation, for their families, their military families,” she says. “Because he was right.”
She says that quote helps her understand his sacrifice and grit, even when it was difficult for their family. It’s “not the easiest life to be married to someone in the military,” she says, because of the frequent moves, deployments, readjustments for both parents and their children — and the possibility of losing a loved one.
She says that familial sacrifice must also be honored each Memorial Day.
“It is not just the sacrifice,” she says, “but it’s living that military lifestyle followed by that sacrifice that is so important that we remember and honor those people that have made that ultimate sacrifice.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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