US Army Maj. Paul C. Voelke was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan in June 2012, and left behind his wife, Traci, and two sons, Andrew, 10, and Ben, eight.
“He was on his fifth deployment and second in Afghanistan – he also served in Iraq and Kosovo,” Traci Voelke told The Jerusalem Post. “He was hit by a mine-resistant ambush-protected [MRAP] vehicle in Masir Sharif [a city in the north of Afghanistan] while conducting a routine safety inspection,” she said.
Traci and Paul were high school sweethearts. He attended the United States Military Academy in West Point and then received a master’s degree at Georgetown University, while she attended the University of Maryland and pursued a career as a lawyer. The family moved around the US due to Paul’s military career and lived on six different army bases before he was killed.
Following his death, Traci Voelke and her two sons relocated to Washington, where they live today.
Traci and her son Andrew, along with five other families, arrived in Israel last week, ahead of Remembrance Day, as part of an eight-day program coordinated by Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors (TAPS) and the Israeli Defense Forces Widows and Orphans Organization (IDFWO), who hosted the families.
“My son and I both wanted to visit Israel and I thought this trip would be a nice way to combine his father’s experience in the military with his Jewish heritage and with our American experience,” Voelke said.
As part of their trip to Israel, the families toured Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada, Yad Vashem and the Palmahim Air Base, near Yavne.
In addition, the American families spent three nights with Israeli hosts, widows and orphans of the IDF.
“We stayed with a family who lost their father in a Palestinian terror attack, and for Andrew he takes comfort in the fact that there are children here that have experienced what he experienced with the loss of his father,” she said.
“The [Israeli] mother wrote a book about her experience, and I was reading it in English and realized that so many of the things she experienced are the same emotions and processes that I went through in the US – the struggles she faces every day are the same as mine – being a single parent, that the children have good days and bad days with the loss of their dad; and so even though our children didn’t speak the same language they still have common life experiences from around the world,” she said.
Noa Ben-Zeev, along with her two children Niv, 16, and Shira, 13, hosted one of the American families – Becky, 37, with her daughter Nikki, 19, who lost their husband and father, respectively, in a vehicle accident in Iraq in 2008.
“We heard about the delegation that was coming and we offered to host them – it felt very natural to host them – and it seemed like an interesting and unique opportunity to meet people from another part of the world with something in common,” Noa Ben- Zeev said.
Ten years ago, Ben-Zeev lost her husband, Gadi, then 36-years-old, to leukemia, while he was in the service of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“With regards to the loss the connection is almost immediate,” she said.
“This humane meeting gave us the opportunity to gain an in depth connection, to listen to one another and to tell them what we are going through – and there is something very powerful about universal solidarity,” she said.
Ben-Zeev explained that her family is very involved with the IDFWO through the activities of her children and their participation in the OTZMA camps programs, run by the IDFWO.
Every Hanukka, Passover and Succot since 2011, hundreds of children from all over the country who have lost a parent in the IDF get together through the OTZMA camp program to participate in activities and to celebrate the holidays together.
In addition, the OTZMA runs a summer camp program in the US, which, in cooperation with TAPS, brings Israeli orphans for a 25-day tour of the US, and introduces them to American counterparts.
“Shira spent last summer at the US tour for her bat mitzva and she met [American] children – it was a very significant and beneficial visit for her,” Ben-Zeev said.
“We gather strength from one another and the OTZMA camps are a very supportive place where the children can ‘relax’ from the everyday noise about their father – the pity, the whispers, the fear that people are talking about their circumstances,” she said.
According to Shlomi Nahumson, director of Youth Programs at the IDFWO, the two organizations began their cooperation through the OTZMA summer camp in the US and have now expanded this cooperation to bring the US delegation to Israel.
“We wanted to give the children a universal aspect – to show that there are other children around the world who identify with them,” said Nahumson, “and the chemistry between the children was immediate, despite the language gap.”
“I hope this is a tradition that will continue and will bring about a new friendship, we are very lucky that we found a very fruitful cooperation with TAPS,” he added.
On Sunday evening, the eve of Remembrance Day, the families attended the National Ceremony at the Western Wall and on Monday laid a wreath at the Armored Corps Remembrance Ceremony in Latrun in honor of the day.
Voelke said: “The principles that Israeli soldiers fight for are the same as US soldiers – we want to live in a free country and practice our culture and religions and our way of life independently.
I appreciate the sacrifice and understand why it was made and I am hopeful for future.”