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. According to Cheryl Waldman, public relations officer for the Jewish War Veterans (JWV), many Jewish service personnel in Iraq are probably “flying under the radar.” They do not want their faith known — in their unit or, more seriously, among their enemies.
Nevertheless, the names of eight Jewish men killed in combat have become part of the public record via obituary notices and similar sources. On this Memorial Day, we honor them.
Marine Cpl. Mark Asher Evnin, 21, of South Burlington, Vt., died in Iraq on April 3, 2003, of wounds received in action. He was a scout sniper with the 3/4 of the 1st Marine Division at Twentynine Palms, Calif. Evnin is the best known of the Jewish war dead because he was the first Jewish serviceman to die, and he was among the first two-dozen casualties of the war. Evnin was a 2000 graduate of South Burlington High School. He played high school football and lacrosse, and was a cross-country skier. His survivors include his parents, his maternal grandparents and his paternal grandmother. His Jewish funeral attracted more than 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 in Iraq on July 6, 2003. Wershow was a member of the Florida Army National Guard. He 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.
Wershow was buried on his family’s farm near Gainesville. He was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. More than 1,000 mourners, including many high-ranking officers, attended a memorial in the Oak Hall School gymnasium. Wershow’s survivors include his father and mother, a stepmother and a stepfather, and a younger brother.
David Bernstein, 24, formerly of Phoenixville, Pa., a first lieutenant with the Army’s 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade, was killed in Iraq on October 16, 2003, when enemy forces ambushed his patrol with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. According to the local Phoenixville paper, the 173rd is famous for its quick reactions, most often carried out by parachuting into war zones. Bernstein was dropped into northern Iraq at the beginning of the war and had remained there since, according to his father, Richard Bernstein. “He felt very indebted to this country for what it has done for him, and for everyone,” his father told the Forward. “He wanted to serve his country, and he did.”
Bernstein graduated fifth in his class from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which was the basis for some family humor. The Bernsteins always joked that the first through fourth ranking cadets got awards at graduation, but there was no award for the cadet ranking fifth in his class. Therefore, as a perpetual tribute to David, his family has established the first 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. The award has academy approval, and donations may be made online: www-secure.west point.org/drb/memorial/donate.
Army Spc. Marc S. Seiden, 26, of Brigantine, N.J., died in Baghdad on January 3, 2004, 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. Seiden was a New York Mets fan and played soccer in high school. He 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 September 11, 2001. “I didn’t understand it when he did it. I was angry at him because I knew what could possibly happen,” she said. “But he felt like he could fight for his country and he wanted to.” 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 in Iraq on February 3, 2003. 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.” Offered two weeks’ leave in December, according to his father, Seth refused to go because so many of his platoon members had not yet had the chance. His survivors include his father, his sister and his wife — a college sweetheart whom he had married a week before he was deployed. Dvorin was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star for valor.
Sgt. Elijah Tai Wah Wong, 42, of Mesa, Ariz., was killed Feb. 9, 2004, in Sinjar, Iraq, when he and other soldiers tried to move a cache of unexploded rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds that 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, Ariz.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Wong was the child of a Chinese father and a Jewish mother. Wong 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 New York Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserves before enlisting in the Arizona National Guard. He worked as a probation officer for Maricopa County, Ariz., and was the married father of three young children. “He was probably the most amazing person I have ever met. He really cared about everyone and everybody,” his sister told the Tribune.
Marine Cpl. Dustin Schrage, 20, of Indian Harbor, Fla., died in Iraq on May 6, 2004. While his death is under investigation, it is believed that he drowned while swimming across a river in the Al 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. He graduated from a Florida high school. His mother, Nina, and his three siblings described Dustin to the newspaper Florida Today as a laidback 20-year-old who enjoyed video games, punk rock, and hanging out with friends and family. According to his mother, he had always planned to join a SWAT team after he got out of the Corps, but recently he told her he wanted a job that didn’t require living by an alarm clock. He’d had enough of that in the military.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Nathan Bruckenthal, 24, was killed on April 25, 2004, while conducting maritime operations in the North Arabian Gulf. He was guarding an oil platform 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. His funeral was held at Arlington National Cemetery, and he was buried, at his request, in his tallit. Bruckenthal was given a Bronze Star for valor.
Bruckenthal was born on Long Island, but due to his parents’ divorce, he was raised in a number of locations throughout the country. He finally settled in Virginia, where he joined the ROTC in high school. He served as a volunteer fireman and joined the Coast Guard in 1998.
One thousand people attended a memorial service for Bruckenthal a few weeks ago. Attendees included Ric Bruckenthal, Nathan’s father and the police chief of Northport; Congressman Steve Israel; and Nathan Bruckenthal’s pregnant wife.
The Jewish War Veterans runs a program to assist Jewish service personnel in Iraq, called “Operation SOS.” Friends and families writing the JWV send care packages to soldiers who identify themselves as Jewish to the JWV or are identified. Other supplies are sent to Jewish chaplains for distribution to soldiers. You can contact Operation SOS by writing Jewish War Veterans, 1811 R Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.