An outstanding young man and a role model for youth his age in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Spec. Robert L. Voakes Jr. of L’Anse was proud to be a soldier. He believed wholeheartedly that he was doing the right thing by committing his life to serving the country he loved.
Sadly, Voakes lost his life at the age of 21, on June 4, 2011 while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He was among four soldiers who died when insurgents attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device (IED).
Proud of his American Indian heritage, his mother Valerie Voakes, said he flew his tribal flag in Afghanistan and she kept him supplied with sage for praying and ceremonies.
Assigned to a military police battalion from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, his company, nicknamed “the Artic Enforcers,” had deployed to Afghanistan in late March for a one-year tour. He was serving with the 164th Military Police Company, 793rd Military Police Battalion, 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, in Lagham Province.
Voakes’ younger sister, Nancy Voakes, said, “Everyday we pray for his comrades that are overseas fighting, and for their families awaiting their soldiers’ safe return. My brother has been sent home by the Creator and left with the honor of being our warrior.”
Voakes’ remains were returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on June 6.
The 2009 Baraga High School graduate was honored at a local memorial service where hundreds of people showed up to pay their respects. Army representatives presented his military awards to his parents, Robert Sr. and Valerie. Voakes earned the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star Medal and several other awards, in addition to his posthumous promotion to specialist.
His good friend, Chris Ochs, was stationed with Voakes in Fort Richardson and later traveled with him to Afghanistan. About six-weeks prior to his friend’s death, Ochs was also struck by an IED and was severely injured. Now home, Ochs was able to attend his friend’s funeral on a medical release.
The Army then flew Voakes’ family to the base in Alaska he was assigned to for a memorial service. His mother said she was told that members of his company in Afghanistan wanted to know if it was alright for them to sign his tribal flag and return it to her for safekeeping. She said, “Let those men sign it, Robert would be very proud and honored.”
In addition to being active with cultural activities, Voakes was also a volunteer member of the Beartown Firefighters, a KBIC tribal police cadet, president of the KBIC Youth Club, active in Boy Scouts, basketball, football, KBIC Rez Runners, youth hockey and was the head youth dancer at their annual pow wow.
His sister, Nancy, said one of his pride and joys was his Mercedes Benz and the other a 1976 black Coupe DeVille Cadillac.
His mother said he was always encouraging and inspiring his friends and the youth he spent time with to make something of their lives. “He had many goals and aspirations for his future, he wanted to go to school and come back to his people,” she said.
His American Indian name was Nigig-enz, or Little Otter. He was born February 26, 1990 at Portage Hospital in Hancock, Michigan and was a member of the Holy Name of Jesus Church in Assinins, Michigan.
Robert is survived by his parents, Robert “Beaver” and Valerie (Boyette) Voakes, brothers Jeremy and Christopher Voakes, sisters Nancy Voakes and Miranda (Jeremy) Forcia, all of L’Anse, grandmothers Fanchon (Picard) Boyette of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Annabelle DeCota of Baraga, nieces Sydni Voakes, Josilyn Voakes and nephew Brendon Friisvall. Numerous aunts, uncles, and many cousins and close friends also survive. He was preceded in death by his grandfathers and an uncle.
“His smile and humor will forever be with us,” said his sister Nancy. “He was truly one of a kind and was very wise for his young age. Our family is deeply saddened by his loss.”