Of the more than 6,500 Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since fighting began nearly 11 years ago, we know that 50 called themselves Jews. The Forward profiled 37 of those Jewish servicemen and women in February 2011; since then, more have died and still more have been identified as Jewish by such groups as the National Museum of American Jewish Military History. Based on those lists, the Forward is publishing another 13 profiles.
Read the Forward’s story profiling 37 Jewish service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like the American military as a whole, they were a diverse lot — as old as 43 and as young as 19 when they died. Some enlisted fresh out of high school while others were more mature, leaving behind spouses and children in order to fight insurgencies on foreign soil. They hailed from around the country and yet, in a painful coincidence, two of the dead grew up in the same, small community in Maryland. For some, their connection to Judaism seemed fleeting or incidental, but for others it formed an essential part of the siren call to service. Michael Brodsky brought an Israeli flag with him when he was deployed. Michael Oremus’s mother found a yarmulke in her son’s belongings after he died.
As Eric Soufrine’s rabbi told the Forward: “He saw being Jewish and being American as being inextricably bound together.”
Maia Efrem assembled these moving profiles, with help from Seth Berkman, Andrea Palatnik and Blair Thornburgh.— Jane Eisner
Chief Warrant Officer Eric A. Smith
‘He died a Jew’
Eric Smith, the youngest of three boys, was shy and soft-spoken. “He was the apple of my eye — John Wayne quiet,” said Ted Smith, his father.
“He was an average student, an outstanding soccer player, homecoming king, a gentle soul…the kind of guy you want your daughter to bring home,” recalled his brother, Mark Smith.
A Brighton, N.Y. native, Smith graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in business and finance, and relocated to California to work at a bank. Unhappy with his job, he began working as a host at a comedy club. There he met Navy pilots and decided to go into aviation.
Growing up in a home with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, Smith was raised Jewish and declared his religion when he enlisted, without his father’s knowledge.
“He was the one you relied upon. He was the common man, the kind of man that makes this country go,” his brother said.
Before leaving for Kuwait at the start of the Iraq war, Smith spent time with his father. “I told him: ‘It’s a shitty war. Don’t volunteer.’ But he volunteered for everything,” Ted Smith said.
Smith, a 16-year veteran who never married, became an Army aviator, and one of his duties was instrument training as an Army rotary wing instrument flight examiner. Rich King, who trained under Smith, remembered joking with him and asking “what a rich Jew with a degree was doing in the Army.” Smith spoke of duty, honor and sacrifice, and “how being Jewish and serving the military was his dream.”
“He lived a Jew, he died a Jew; he was a Jewish hero and an American hero,” his brother said.
Eric Smith was killed April 2, 2003, when a Black Hawk helicopter carrying him and six other soldiers accidentally crashed in Karbala, Iraq. He was 41 years old.