On Veterans Day 2015, the Forward salutes the Americans who have died in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — and reminds readers of the dozens of Jewish servicememebers who perished. Here is a look back at how we have covered their wrenching stories.
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.
Cpl. Ryan J. Clark
An Angels fan
A caring soul who loved his family, Ryan Clark was liked by all who knew him. He had a gift for making others feel comfortable and relaxed. The Lancaster, Calif., native enlisted in the Army right after high school. “The military matured him so much,” said his stepsister, Hollie O’Brien. “When he came home, we could tell how much he had changed, and it was a good change.”
Growing up in an interfaith home with a Jewish mother, Clark celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah with his family. (His mother died two years after he did.)
“He had so much energy as a kid,” Norm Shaffer, his maternal grandfather, told the Forward. “He lived just a couple of blocks away from us, and he would just come by all the time to raid our refrigerator and talk. I’d take him to school and I’d take him everywhere when he was small. I’ll tell you one thing about Ryan: he was an angel.”
Clark was a true baseball enthusiast; his brother Sean fondly remembers playing games in their backyard. When he died, one of his friends spoke to baseball’s Los Angeles Angels about Clark’s devotion to the team; the Angels bought a bench for the cemetery where Clark is buried so that when people come and visit his grave, they have a place to sit.
After an attack Clark was injured and suffered third-degree burns all over his body. At the end of a 10-day struggle to stay alive, he died in a Texas hospital, surrounded by his parents. When O’Brien had visited Clark for his boot camp graduation, he made her a keychain from a rock the two found nearby. She has carried it since the day he died.
Ryan Clark died June 29, 2006, from injuries sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee during combat operations in Ramadi, Iraq. He was 19 years old.
Staff Sgt. Robert J. Paul
A man who waged peace
Robert Paul, an Army Reservist with a master’s degree in urban planning and economic development from the University of Maryland, was called to active duty in early 2004 to help rebuild infrastructure in Iraq. Paul was featured in Rob Schultheis’s 2005 book, “Waging Peace: A Special Operations Team’s Battle To Rebuild Iraq.” He also wrote occasional dispatches for his local newspaper, The Dalles Chronicle, in Oregon.
“It was pretty obvious what was broken and rundown,” Paul wrote from Iraq. “Saddam [Hussein] did absolutely no maintenance to his cities. Everything was broken or about to break. I was performing maintenance and repair on systems that were not maintained for decades. They were also poorly designed. Naturally, I worked with community groups and the like to get projects aimed at what civilians wanted most rather than what I thought they should want most.”
Originally from Hammond, Ind., Paul also spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya.
But it was the wilderness of Oregon that he loved the most. “Bob loved this area so much. He moved out here because he loved the West, he loved Oregon and he loved the [Columbia River] Gorge. He was very much into hiking and trail running and whitewater kayaking, all the outdoor experiences,” Todd Cornett, who worked with Paul as an urban planner in the Dalles area, told The Dalles Chronicle.
He was deployed to Afghanistan in the spring of 2006. In a statement released by the Army after he died, Paul’s family said: “Bob was the kind of guy who if called for duty, would serve. He never turned down an opportunity, because he always wanted to make a difference in everything he did — the Peace Corps, the Army, his civilian job and, most importantly, his family and friends.”
Robert Paul was killed September 8, 2006, when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee in Kabul, Afghanistan. A month earlier, he had celebrated his 43rd birthday.
Pfc. Michael K. Oremus
Killed on Yom Kippur
A bright-eyed and happy boy who always smiled, Michael Oremus loved soccer and played the sport for most of his life. A “bonus baby” with two brothers much older than he, Oremus was an average student. When he was 10 years old, his father died from stomach cancer, and Michael had a hard time adjusting. But he found his outlet in sports. He was outgoing, and loved younger children so much that in high school he volunteered as a camp counselor and coached soccer in his hometown of Highland, N.Y.
Oremus attended Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for six months before realizing that school was not for him, his mother said. His family was taken aback and tried to discourage him from going into the service, but Oremus insisted that he was making the right decision. Hoping that military experience would lead to a career as a state trooper, he enlisted in February 2005 and left for boot camp.
Oremus celebrated the Jewish holidays, attended Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah at the Jewish Congregation of New Paltz Kehillat Ahavat Achim, a Reconstructionist synagogue his family belonged to at the time. When his mother, Maddy Oremus-Palmese, received her son’s belongings after his death, she was surprised to find a copy of the Torah, a yarmulke and the Chai necklace she had given him. “Maybe he needed something to feel good about,” she told the Forward.
Oremus was stationed in Korea for a little more than a year before he volunteered to deploy to Iraq to help train military police in Baghdad. He was there for two months when he was killed. The family has set up the Michael Oremus Foundation in his memory, to help youngsters who can’t afford to go to camps or to attend recreational activities. “I know it would make him so happy to know that his name is being carried on and he’s helping other people,” his mother said. “And it helps me, too, because it keeps his name alive.”
Michael Oremus was killed October 2, 2006, Yom Kippur, by a gunshot wound from enemy forces in Baghdad. He was 21 years old.
Tech Sgt. Timothy R. Weiner
A military family
It was Timothy Weiner’s lifelong dream to join the United States Air Force. “He had a fascination with aircraft, did plane models, and he talked about being in the Air Force since he was 8 years old,” his brother, Kevin Weiner, told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. The youngest of five, Weiner chose a life in the military like all three of his brothers, enlisting in 1990 and becoming an explosives expert.
Speaking with the Sun-Sentinel, his family remembered Weiner as a man who had a sense of authority and responsibility, marrying his high school sweetheart after graduation. Weiner was set to return to his wife, Debbie, and his teenage son two weeks before he died. He planned to retire from the Air Force three years later.
His sister-in-law, Barbara Weiner, recalled how proud Weiner had been of his son, Jonathan. “It’s going to be a rough time for his son, but he will know how brave his father was and what a heroic thing he was doing,” she said.
Timothy Weiner was killed January 7, 2007, by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device while performing duties in Baghdad. He was 35 years old.
Pfc. Morris L. Walker
He could fit in anywhere
Morris Walker’s grandmother, Burglinde Walker, and her family hid the fact that they were Jews in Germany during the Holocaust in order to survive. She later fell in love with and married an African-American soldier stationed in Germany and moved to Fayetteville, N.C., with him. Morris Walker was raised by his grandmother, and though he was always proud of his roots and identified with the Jewish people, he was not raised as a Jew.
Walker — or “Mo,” as his friends remember him — was a man who could fit in anywhere. “He had grown up in a situation where he was one of the only African-American kids in private school and had learned how to be a fish in any water,” his friend Sam Rosenthal told the Forward.
By the time Walker got to college at the University of North Carolina, however, he embraced his Jewish identity more openly and joined a Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau. Michael Chasin, a frat brother, described him as a social butterfly who excelled in sports and whose smile lit up a room and brought joy to people. The two attended Sabbath and holiday dinners together at the home of Ben Packer, the UNC campus rabbi.
Since Walker grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., in a military town near Fort Bragg, it came as no surprise to his friends when, before graduating from UNC, he enlisted in the Army, looking forward to rising in the ranks and having a strong military career. “When he came back from basic training he was a different person. All of us saw the military as changing him for the better,” Chasin said.
When Walker died, Packer dedicated siddurim prayer books and planted a tree in Israel in Walker’s honor.
“He wasn’t perfect; he had his issues, he had his demons. But he was special. He was a special person,” Rosenthal said.
Morris Walker died August 18, 2009, in Dila, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was 23 years old.
Sgt. Zachary M. Fisher
Committed to Army life
Zachary Fisher was a history buff who enjoyed stories of heroism and bravery. His favorite movies included “Braveheart” and “Saving Private Ryan.” But he also was a passionate friend and husband. During the summer of 2006 he met the woman who would become his wife. They dated until he left for Iraq in early 2007; when Fisher returned for Christmas break, he proposed. The couple were married April 26, 2008, at B’nai El Congregation, in Frontenac, Mo.
“Zach took his family and his friendships very seriously. He adored his grandparents. He fell in love with [his wife] almost instantly,” Jim Jacobs, Fisher’s stepfather, told the Forward.
Though he had been exposed to Judaism through his stepfather, Fisher’s parents said their son had decided to officially convert when he returned home but died before he got the opportunity. Fisher was converted and given the Hebrew name Zecharya in a Jewish and military burial.
Fisher grew up in Ballwin, Mo. and graduated from Marquette High School in 2004. After a brief stint in community college, he eventually joined the Army Reserves.
During Fisher’s funeral procession, local residents lined the streets alongside members of the military, including 100 riders from the Patriot Guard. The Missouri Military Memorial Foundation reported that people in a car passing by in the opposite direction “stopped in the middle of traffic, got out of their vehicle, and stood with their hands over their hearts.”
Zachary Fisher was killed July 14, 2010, in Zabul Province, Afghanistan, when insurgents attacked his military vehicle with a command wired improvised explosive device. He was 24 years old.
Staff Sgt. James M. Malachowski
‘A great man’
When James Malachowski and his fellow Marines were sitting around, discussing what they would do with their deployment money, one talked of a vacation; another wanted to buy a motorcycle. But Malachowski was more grounded: He made plans for a sensible purchase of a washer and dryer.
Malachowski, whose mother and sister both served in the military, was on his fourth combat tour, serving in Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq, according to the Carroll County Times. The United States Marine Corps was the “heart and soul” of the Westminster, Md., Marine, said his mother, Alison Malachowski, and he was aware of the risks involved.
Brandy Malachowski said she’d last spoken to her brother two weeks before his death. He shared what he planned to do after he returned home from Afghanistan when his deployment was over six months later.
In an email to the Times, fellow Marine Gregory Pedrick summed up his friend’s character: “‘Ski’ was the kind of Marine you could count on to get the job done. The USMC lost a good Marine, but the world lost a great man.”
James Malachowski was killed March 20, 2011, by an improvised explosive device in Marjah, Afghanistan. He was 25 years old.
Pfc. Eric D. Soufrine
‘Someone you could count on’
At 6 feet 5 inches, Eric Soufrine was a gentle giant. He loved the outdoors, whether it was fishing on the water or participating in skeet shooting competitions with his father, but he cared even more about helping others. Before joining the military, Soufrine volunteered as a junior firefighter and at a nearby nursing home. Rabbi Herbert Brockman of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Conn., said: “He would be the first one if someone was hurt; he would try and save somebody. He was someone you could count on, someone to watch your back.”
Donna Soufrine said her son had “a great love for his country,” and that “he knew from a very early age, back in grammar school, he would join the military.” His maternal grandfather fought in World War II, and his paternal grandfather was a veteran of the Korean War. Eventually, both Soufrine and his sister, Rebecca Soufrine, enlisted to serve their country.
Brockman said that Eric Soufrine was “someone who wanted to do good things for his community, very involved with family. He saw being Jewish and being American as being inextricably bound together.”
In 2009, Soufrine graduated from Amity Regional High School, where he played football and lacrosse. He enlisted after one semester in Gateway Community College, in New Haven, Conn. He planned to attend college upon completing his service and wanted to study environmental sciences.
“He was a great, great son,” Donna Soufrine said. “He brought us great pride and joy. We all loved spending time with him. He had a quick smile; he brightened your day just by spending time with him. He had a great love of family and was extremely close with his sister.”
Eric Soufrine was killed on June 14, 2011, while riding over an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. He was two weeks short of completing a tour of duty. He was 20 years old.
Spec. Douglas J. Green
‘He made them all laugh”
Growing up in Sterling, Va., Douglas Green played football and performed in school productions, even playing the “bad guy” in “Footloose.” His mother, Suni Erlanger, told The Washington Post that when his family tried to persuade Green not to enlist in the Army, it was for naught. “He loved his country, and nothing was going to stop him,” she said. After enlisting in 2007, Green served a tour in Iraq and was then deployed to Afghanistan.
Erlanger told the Post that her son’s enlistment was to be up before the end of 2011, when he had plans to marry and to pursue a college degree and a career in the Secret Service or the CIA.
Even in hard and dangerous times for Green and his unit in Afghanistan, Erlanger said, “he made them all laugh.” He also assured his fellow soldiers “that everything’s going to be okay.”
“Everybody loved Doug,” his mother said. “Everybody loved him.”
Douglas Green was killed on August 28, 2011, in Afghanistan when insurgents attacked his unit using a makeshift bomb and small arms fire. He was 23 years old.
Pfc. Steven F. Shapiro
A new father
Steven Shapiro first met Adela Veguilla in the summer of 2003, but they didn’t connect seriously until six years later, for a date in Japantown, in San Francisco. “A couple of weeks into our relationship, I knew he was the one. Steve was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” his wife recalled in her post on the American Widow Project, a forum for military widows.
After they became an official couple, Shapiro, who was originally from Hidden Valley Lake, Calif., met Veguilla’s parents. Shapiro soon became close with her father, who would often discuss the benefits of a military career. His girlfriend’s father eventually inspired him to enlist in the U.S. Army, even going with him to the recruitment office.
On December 31, 2009, after seven months together, Shapiro and Veguilla married. He left for four months of basic training the following March. The couple had not even reached their one-year anniversary when Shapiro received orders for deployment. On February 2, 2011, Shapiro was deployed to Iraq. The following day, his wife realized that she was pregnant with their first child.
On September 29, 2011, two days after Shapiro returned home on leave, his wife gave birth to their son, Micah. Shapiro was at her side the entire time. When it was time to go back to Iraq, “he kissed me and said, ‘Goodbye. I’ll be home before you know it.’ I told him I loved him and didn’t want to let go,” Veguilla-Shapiro said.
Steven Shapiro died October 21, 2011, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while serving in Iraq. He was 29 years old.
AiRMAN 1st Class Matthew R. Seidler
A neighborhood in mourning
From the time he could run outside and play, Matthew Seidler displayed his imagination. As a child, he enjoyed dressing up in various uniforms, adorning himself with different sets of hats, belts and cowboy boots.
Later in life, Seidler fell in love with the arts, finding creative outlets in drawing, shooting and editing video and graphic design.
Seidler was never content with the status quo. In high school, when he became drawn to ultimate Frisbee and couldn’t find any local games to join, he started his own competitions, which attracted other classmates.
Seidler’s mother, Lauren Seidler, said that Matthew wasn’t raised in a strictly religious family but did attend Hebrew school and had a connection with other Jewish friends in the county. The Seidlers were one of the few Jewish families in Westminster, Md.
“Matt was not a judgmental person,” Lauren Seidler said. “He was very fair, very open-minded, very intelligent. He was very introspective.”
When it came to joining the Air Force, Lauren Seidler said her son didn’t have one particular reason for doing so. “He was looking for something that was challenging, and [for] direction. Maybe it fulfilled a number of needs for him and was the right thing to do,” his mother said.
In the military, Seidler, an Airman First Class, became an explosive ordnance disposal technician and immediately bonded with his colleagues. Seidler’s grandfather was a Navy pilot in World War II, and often showed his grandchildren photos and told them stories of his service.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah, who spoke at Seidler’s funeral, remembered their first meeting. “I was excited to meet someone about to go into the Air Force. He said: ‘I’m not a hero at all, I just want to serve my country, protect my family.’ He couldn’t accept the fact that I thought he was something special.”
Shapiro noted that Westminster is a small town, where everyone knows each other. When the neighborhood learned of Seidler’s death, the streets were lined with American flags.
“It was like a whole neighborhood was in mourning,” Shapiro said.
Matthew Seidler died in Afghanistan on January 5, 2012, when his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. He had turned 24 two days earlier.
PETTY OFFICER 2nd Class Michael J. Brodsky
‘A dedicated soul’
On September 11, 2001, when Michael Brodsky found out about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he and his younger brother, Corey Brodsky, went down to the recruitment office and enlisted in the Navy. The same day, the two brothers got matching tattoos of the Star of David with the Hebrew word for “brotherhood” in the middle.
Steven Brodsky remembers his son as a “goofball” who was always teasing his mother and younger brother. Growing up in Tamarac, Fla., Brodsky was a Cub Scout and later a Boy Scout; a dedicated and athletic student, he also wrestled in high school.
Brodksy came from a patriotic family and became a dog handler in the Navy. Planning to make a career out of the military, Brodsky repeatedly took tests for a promotion. On the day that he died, his father said, the promotion finally came through. Steven Brodsky, an ex-military man himself, proudly recounted his son’s 11 medals.
Michael Brodsky loved his 9-year-old daughter, Natalia, who had fought and beaten cancer when she was younger. “He talked to his mother every day on Skype, and he was my best friend. He was a good person,” Steven Brodsky said.
Brodsky carried an Israeli flag with him when he was deployed, his father told the Forward. “He was a dedicated soul; he loved what he did, and no one could have talked him out of it.”
Michael Brodsky died July 21, 2012 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, from injuries caused by an improvised explosive device. He was 33 years old.
Maia Efrem has worked at the Forward since 2010 and currently serves as research editor and assistant to the editor. Maia is the editor of the Assimilator, the Forward’s arts and culture blog and is responsible for the Forward’s annual Salary Survey. Previously she served as the editor of Blognik Beat, a blog written by students who emigrated from or have ties to the Former Soviet Union. Maia is a graduate of Hunter College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.