Fallen Jewish soldiers remembered
It is impossible to compile an absolutely accurate list of the Jewish service personnel who have been killed in Iraq. The Defense Department no longer keeps statistics on the religion of its personnel. Moreover, Jewish chaplains observe a policy of strict confidentiality regarding the faith of service personnel and will neither confirm nor deny whether a war casualty was Jewish.
There is one more complication. Cheryl Waldman, public relations officer for the Jewish War Veterans, says that many Jewish service personnel in Iraq are probably “flying under the radar.” They do not want their religious status known lest it cause problems in their unit or, more seriously, that this fact becomes known to their enemies.
Nevertheless, the names of nine Jewish men killed in combat have become part of the public record via obituary notices and similar sources.
Marine Cpl. Mark Asher Evnin, 21, of South Burlington, Vt., died April 3, 2003, of wounds received in action. He was a scout sniper with the 3/4 of the 1st Marine Division at 29 Palms, Calif. Evnin is the best-known of the Jewish war dead both because he was the first Jewish serviceman to die and because he was among the first casualties of the war. His story was told in an April 15, 2003, Jewish Telegraph Agency article: “The first known Jewish casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Evnin opened an emotional outpouring from Jews around the world. ‘From Israel to New Jersey, people have been calling, writing. It has been incredible,’ said Evnin’s mother, Mindy Evnin … ‘I don’t know why it is. Maybe it’s because the war might help Israel,’ she said. ‘Maybe because my father was a rabbi. I don’t know, but it gives me pleasure.'”
Evnin’s traditional Jewish funeral attracted over 1,000 mourners, including Gov. Douglas of Vermont.
Army Spc. Jeffrey M. Wershow, 22, of Gainesville, Fla., assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Orlando, Fla., was shot and killed July 6, 2003, in Baghdad. Wershow was a member of the Florida Army National Guard.
According to USA Today, “Wershow’s unit became one of the first to enter Iraq as the war began. Under cover of darkness and using night-vision goggles to see, they breached dirt berms on Iraq’s borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia to allow special operations forces to drive through … The soldiers were led to believe they would be sent home in mid-May. Instead, (his company) was ordered to Baghdad. Wershow fretted that he would miss the fall semester at college.”
Wershow was guarding a detail of civilian Americans meeting with Iraqi university officials when he left the meeting, after two hours, to get a soft drink. He was fatally shot in the back of the neck by a gunman on the campus. The gunman escaped in the confusion that followed the shooting.
David Bernstein, 24, formerly of Phoenixville, Pa., a first lieutenant with the Army’s 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade, was killed Oct. 16, 2003, when enemy forces ambushed his patrol with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. According to The Phoenix newspaper, Bernstein was dropped into northern Iraq at the beginning of the war and had remained there since, according to his father, Richard Bernstein. His father told the paper, “He was an exceptional man and a wonderful person and he will be missed terribly. He felt very indebted to this country for what it has done for him, and for everyone. He wanted to serve his country, and he did.”
Bernstein graduated fifth in his class from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His funeral was held at the Jewish chapel at West Point. As a perpetual tribute to him, his family has established the 1st Lt. David R. Bernstein Memorial Award to be given to those in each graduating class of West Point who achieve the fifth-highest class standing. Donations may be made at https://www-secure.west-point.org/drb/memorial/donate.
Army Pfc. Jacob S. Fletcher, 26, of Bay Shore, N.Y., was killed Nov. 13, 2003. He was with Company C, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Fletcher was killed when an explosive device hit a bus he was riding in. He was inspired to join the military following the death of a friend in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His father Marlowe told Newsday, “Whether people believe in the war or not, you have to believe in our soldiers. This was an American soldier, airborne. He was my beloved son and he was a hero.”
Army Spc. Marc S. Seiden, 26, of Brigantine, N.J., died Jan. 3, 2004, in Baghdad when his convoy was ambushed by the enemy, who used an improvised explosive device, small-arms fire and a rocket-propelled grenade. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne. His mother told the Fayetteville, N.C. Observer that Seiden was “a daredevil since childhood,” which led him to join the airborne. “I always had to have 25 eyes on him.”
Seiden joined the Army in April 2002 and was assigned to the 82nd in September of that year. His mother, Gail Seiden, said that Marc joined the Army in part because of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. She added, “He joined because he felt he had a duty. I didn’t understand it when he did it. I was angry at him because I knew what could possibly happen. But he felt like he could fight for his country and he wanted to.” Marc, his mother said, called his family twice on New Year’s Eve and once on New Year’s Day. He was excited about coming home since his unit was scheduled to come back in February. Seiden was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star for valor.
Army Lt. Seth Dvorin, of East Brunswick, N.J., a member of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., was killed Feb. 3, 2004, in Iraq. His sister, Rebekah, told The Associated Press that the army informed her that “Seth’s unit had been ordered to clear the area of the homemade mines and bombs that have killed dozens of troops … they were in a convoy and saw something in the road. My brother, the hero, told his driver to stop. That’s when the bomb detonated, when they were trying to dismantle it.” Dvorin’s father, Richard, told the AP that his son was a loyal, responsible commander who sought to make life as easy as possible on the soldiers he oversaw. Offered two weeks’ leave in December, his father said, Seth refused to go because so many of his platoon members had not yet had the chance. Dvorin was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star for valor.
Sgt. Elijah Tai Wah Wong, 42, of Mesa was killed Feb. 9, 2004, in Sinjar, Iraq, when he and other soldiers were trying to move a cache of unexploded rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds, which had been seized from enemy forces. The cache blew up, killing Wong and another soldier. Wong was with the 363rd Explosive Ordnance Company, Army National Guard, based in Casa Grande.
As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Wong was the son of a Chinese father and a Jewish mother. He was born and raised in New York, but moved to Israel as a teenager. He went to an Israeli high school and became a soldier in the Israeli army. He enlisted in the Air Force after returning to the States. Wong also served in the NY Air National Guard and the Air Forces Reserves before enlisting in the Arizona National Guard. He worked as a probation officer for Maricopa County and was the married father of three children.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Nathan Bruckenthal, 24, was killed April 25, 2004, along with two Navy sailors, while conducting maritime intercept operations in the North Arabian Gulf. He was guarding an oil platform in the Persian Gulf off the shore of Basra, Iraq, when a cargo ship began approaching. The ship blew up when Bruckenthal and others went out to intercept it.
Bruckenthal was born on Long Island, and moved around frequently as a child. He served as a volunteer fireman and joined the Coast Guard in 1998.
His funeral was held at Arlington National Cemetery and he was buried, at his request, in his tallit. One thousand people attended a Long Island memorial service. Bruckenthal was given a Bronze Star for valor.
Marine Cpl. Dustin Schrage, 20, of Indian Harbor, Fla., died May 6, 2004. While his death is still under investigation, it is believed that he drowned while swimming across a river in the Anbar province during a mission. Schrage, who had been in Iraq for a year, was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force.
Dustin Schrage was born in New York and moved to Florida when he was in elementary school. His mother, Nina, told Florida Today newspaper, “He was all about a good time. We always thought he would be a stand-up comic.” Dustin, she added, had always planned to join a SWAT team after he got out of the Corps, about a year from this summer. But more recently, he told his mother that he wanted a job that didn’t require living by an alarm clock. He’d had enough of that in the military.
The Jewish War Veterans runs a program to assist Jewish service personnel in Iraq called “Operation SOS.” Care packages are sent to soldiers who identify themselves as Jewish to the JWV or are identified by friends and families writing the JWV. Other supplies are sent to Jewish chaplains for distribution to soldiers. Contact Operation SOS by writing Jewish War Veterans, 1811 “R” Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20009.
A version of this article was originally printed in The Forward. Nate Bloom is the California-based editor of Jewhoo.com.