Memorial Day has come again, as it always does, and many gathered to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their nation, and then resumed their lives.
Traci Voelke, a legal systems attorney for Fort Belvoir’s Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, admitted her life will never be the same after her husband, Army Infantry Maj. Paul Voelke, was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. Which turned her world upside down and made her a Gold Star Spouse.
“My husband was killed on a combat zone, but he was killed by a vehicle, not by enemy fire,” said Voelke, who went for years claiming a tax exemption because of that. “Virginia has a law on the books that says there is property tax relief if you were killed in action, as defined by the Department of Defense. There's also a property tax exemption for 100% disabled soldiers, or disabled military members and their surviving spouses.”
She said she applied for the killed in action exemption in Fairfax County, where she lives, and it was granted.
It was years later that county officials realized she did not qualify. Her exemption was revoked and she grew concerned when she was told she may have to repay three years of back taxes.
As someone who legally advises surviving spouses on benefits and legal issues that impact them, she developed a personal interest in existing law, and approached Virginia Delegate Kathy Tran, and asked her how the law could be aligned to offer equity to all Gold Star spouses. Her personal investigation revealed that Virginia County governments could allow that exemption, but that would have to be piecemeal lobbying to all 95 counties. Voelke realized what was needed was a constitutional amendment, which would mandate the same standards across the Commonwealth.
Voelke said she also received assistance from Springfield resident Edith Smith, 84.
“[She] has been a volunteer advocate for 40 years on the hill and she knows everything about how to pass laws,” Voelke told the Eagle. “She has been my guiding force and she always said that ‘government is not a spectator sport. You have to participate in your government.’”
With a lot of persistence and help from Tran and Smith, Voelke’s efforts brought Virginia Gold Star Families one step closer to equity. Delegate Tran’s proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution passed in the spring. To follow state policy, she said there are still a couple more steps before it becomes law.
“Now Virginia must have an election and pass it in the exact same form a second year in a row,” Voelke said, adding that Fairfax and Stafford Counties added legislation to implement the tax reduction in their counties for Gold Star families who lost a loved one in defense of the nation. “If the constitutional amendment passes, then it will be mandated that the counties grant the relief.”
For families in other states interested in expanding the relief of Gold Star Families, Voelke urges them to become familiar with the laws affecting surviving spouses, “because they’re intricate and different in each state.” She then suggested that they reach out to the Military Officer’s Association, as they were invaluable in helping to write the legislation, creating information papers and setting up countless meetings with legislators.
“When we retire, we lose that chain of command and that support. The MOAA has been one of those organizations that continues to advocate for survivors on the federal and state level,” said Voelke.
That Mrs. Voelke pushed state legislation across the finish line didn’t surprise Col. Michael Harry, Fort Belvoir’s Staff Judge Advocate.
“I think it's an outstanding effort by someone to see an issue, identify the issue, get involved with the issue and then, in her spare time, be able to have the wherewithal to see it through a long process and provide a fantastic result for survivors and people who gave everything to the country and in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Harry said. “She is indispensable to this office. She is a center of excellence with respect to legal assistance. She serves on numerous boards, bureaus and working groups in her official capacity, all the way up to and including the Pentagon and the Chief of Staff of the Army. She represents our soldiers, our civilians, our retirees, and that is a massive force multiplier when it comes to readiness, which is what we're all about.”
Voelke reflected on the treasure of memories of Paul that she still holds close.
“I was really proud to be married to him. He was a fantastic human,” she said with a broad smile. “He was kind and loved people and loved connecting with people. And, you know, if I can't have him in this world, I'm trying to carry his legacy around by helping others.”