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My friends called him ‘St. Paul.’ Remembering Army Major Paul Voelke

Jessica Manfre Avatar

In 2009, just three years before he would be killed in the line of duty, Army Major Paul C. Voelke wrote an essay for the Times Herald-Record about why he wanted to serve in the military.

“There are two reasons. 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.”

It’s an essay Paul’s wife, Traci, keeps framed on her office wall for inspiration. 

The two were high school sweethearts growing up in upstate New York, just an hour north of the big city. They dated throughout college, Traci at the University of Maryland and Paul at the West Point Military Academy. After graduation in 1998, Traci headed to the University of Georgia for law school, while Paul began his career as a soldier. 

“We didn’t really know what military life was going to be like with no experience or family background so we kind of just winged it,” Traci said. 

When asked to describe Paul’s personality, Traci smiled. 

“My friends used to call him ‘Saint Paul’; he was just morally a little bit superior than most people, including myself. He would help anybody who needed help and would give you the shirt off his back. Most people who knew him said that probably the first word they used to describe him was humble because he was an intellect,” she explained. “He went to West Point and then he got a Master’s at Georgetown. He thought about the world and the people around him and his place in it. He really wanted to serve the military to make the world a better place and to ensure safety for our future. He did it humbly and with consideration for others.”

Paul was training at Fort Polk while Traci was practicing law outside of Fort Moore, formerly Fort Benning, when 9/11 changed everything. The two had been married just a year when the nation went from peacetime to war. 

Traci recalled, “His dad was a firefighter in New York City and I just remember Paul rushed to find a phone to check on him. Thankfully, his dad wasn’t working that day. That attack changed the trajectory of our lives and the global landscape.” 

Paul would often tell her throughout his numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan that they reminded him of how fortunate Americans were. From schools to running water or even trash removal, he saw his mission to improve the lives of those he encountered in those countries as important. 

“It was a warm, Georgia day living outside of Fort Stewart and Paul’s brother had just come to visit us. My two sons were jumping on the trampoline and I remember the doorbell just kept ringing. We were getting ready to leave for a baseball game when I finally opened the door,” Traci remembered. “I honestly thought it was the boys ringing the doorbell to get me to hurry up. I opened the door to tell them to cut it out when I saw the officers. I just knew.”

She was a Family Care Team Coordinator for the battalion when Paul deployed for the second time to Afghanistan. He was in Mazar-i-Sharīf assigned to the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division as its executive officer. On June 22nd, 2012, Paul sustained fatal injuries from an accident involving a mine-protected vehicle. 

“Through all of the investigations, it’s still really not clear how it happened which is really hard. It’s tough to grasp and understand. They deemed it an accident,” she added. 

According to the Congressional Research Service, between 2006-2021 there were more than 6,000 mishaps accounting for 32% of active-duty military deaths. The year Paul was killed, twice as many service members’ deaths were ruled accidental versus combat-related. 

“Life after his death was kind of a blur because you kind of live in a bubble for a while. I honestly don’t remember a whole lot from right after the notification,” Traci recalled. “I just remember people coming in at my house and lots of great friends rallying around us and supporting us. I was so worried about my boys, who were 8 and 6 at the time. I was just trying to survive – really just trying to tread water.”

She described life before that moment as constant movement, wondering what the next move or promotion would mean for their family. But things immediately changed, especially for the end plans, now that ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ vision had been extinguished.

“I stayed in Savannah for a year and started working for the JAG Corps. After that I decided to move the boys and me back to Northern Virginia where Paul and I had a house,” she shared.

Twelve years later, Traci finds herself about to be an “empty nester” and busy. As the Chief of Client Services for the JAG Corps, she describes her career as helping soldiers and their families solve problems. 

“It’s been a really rewarding career and a rewarding life and not one that I chose. I don’t know what direction I would be in if Paul were still with us,” Traci said. “I would trade it all for Paul back any day but I’m glad that I was given this opportunity to really help change people’s lives. It’s tremendously rewarding.”

As Americans gear up to celebrate Memorial Day, she has a quiet message for us all. 

“Paul really believed in his mission, it wasn’t about an award but rather bringing democracy to other countries and realizing that being born in this country is a privilege. When you’re given that privilege we have the responsibility and duty to make the world better for other people,” Traci said. “We like to talk in context about how someone died but it’s not about that, the valor is in putting on the uniform and the service itself. That’s what matters.”

This Memorial Day, you can Run to Remember Army Major Paul C. Voelke with The Unquiet Professional. To learn more, click here

Jessica Manfre is an author and freelance writer for multiple publications. She is a licensed social worker, earning her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Central Florida in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Northwestern State University. Jessica is the co-founder and CFO of Inspire Up, a 501c3 nonprofit promoting global generosity and kindness through education, empowerment and community building. She is the spouse of an active duty Coast Guardsman and mother of two. When she isn't working, you can find her reading a good book and drinking too much coffee.