First-known Jewish casualty spoke of enlisting in the IDF

NEW YORK — As a young boy, Mark Evnin insisted on wearing a yarmulke to the Boy Scouts and later talked of enlisting in the Israel Defense Force.

Now, even without his body, the family of the first-known Jewish casualty of the war on Iraq is sitting shiva, the Jewish mourning period, at their home in Burlington, Vt.

On April 1, Mindy Evnin got a call from her son, a Marine sniper scout, who was somewhere south of Baghdad.

"It was the first time I'd spoken to him since he was deployed" to Kuwait from Camp Pendleton in February, she said. "You can always tell his mood by his voice, and he sounded good."

Two days later, Mark Evnin, 21, a corporal with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment of the Marines' 1st Division, was killed in the town of Kut by Iraqi machine-gun fire.

"He was a macho kid with a gentle soul," his mother said this week as she was preparing her house for the shiva. "He was like a sabra," using the term for a native-born Israeli.

And like most Israeli men, Mark seemed to know he was destined for military service from a young age.

"He was always interested in the military, ever since he was a child," recalled his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Max Wall, 87, of Burlington.

"He had some kind of inborn feeling that he should serve his country; it was just a question of which uniform he should wear."

Evnin and his grandfather grew very close over the years.

Now rabbi emeritus of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Wall served as a chaplain with the 9th Infantry during World War II.

Wall, who was born in Poland, told his grandson stories of how he went to Belgium, France and Germany and worked with displaced persons.

"We had a great time together. He loved stories about World War II. He saw my chaplain uniform, and I gave him all my medals."

After meeting Israeli soldiers when he became a Marine, his mother said, he talked of going to Israel one day and serving in the Israeli military.

"I am sure it mattered to him that he was doing something that is probably helping Israel right now," she said.

When Evnin was 6, his parents separated, but his father, Michael, of Rockville, Md., returned and lived with his son between the ages of 8 and 12.

His father recalled that when Evnin was born, "he looked like an angel.

"He was extremely beautiful, almost shockingly so. He had long, blond golden hair, which as an infant he wore down to his shoulders."

Though he did not grow up deeply religious, relatives said, the extended family celebrated Jewish holidays, and Evnin had his bar mitzvah at the Conservative synagogue his grandfather led.

Mark Evnin "always would say that his zayda was the chief rabbi of Vermont," Mindy Evnin said.

Rabbi Joshua Chasan, who currently leads Ohavi Zedek, recalls that Evnin attended Hebrew school in U.S. Army fatigues.

"There's no doubt about it, Mark did it his own way," Chasan said. "Vermont is a pretty liberal community, and this kid went into the Marine Corps."

When he joined the Boy Scouts as a young boy, his mother said, he insisted on wearing a yarmulke, even though he was not observant.

When a fellow scout said the blond-haired, blue-eyed Evnin did not look Jewish, his mother recalled, "He turned around and said, 'You don't look Christian!'"

At South Burlington High School, Evnin became active in sports, playing lacrosse and football, as well as snow boarding and cross-country skiing.

"Before he was deployed, he and his Marine buddies were reading the Harry Potter books," Mindy Evnin said. "I love that they were reading all this sweet stuff, because they look like such killers."

His father and others said it was the Marines that gave Mark Evnin a sense of direction in life

"He metamorphisized from a gentle, loving kind of child to a hard, serious, focused man," his father said.

His family also called him a natural leader, and Chasan saw that side of the young man last summer, when his 13-year-old cousin, Sarah Antonoff, died of a brain tumor.

When the extended family gathered for shiva, "Mark had really come into his own. He helped the little kids be at ease, playing with them," Chasan said.

His crucial role, according to San Francisco Chronicle reporter John Koopman, who rode with Evnin, was to spot Iraqi snipers and to drive a U.S. sharpshooter, a sergeant major and the journalist, as they headed toward Baghdad.

It was from Koopman's satellite phone that Evnin made his last call to his mother.

At 1 p.m. on April 3, the 800 to 900 soldiers in their convoy got into a firefight with Iraqi soldiers.

Koopman told The Burlington Free Press that Evnin was shooting back after coming under fire and got hit, apparently in the abdomen.

His wounds did not appear life-threatening, and the two even joked about how Evnin would get sponge baths from the nurses, Koopman said.

But he died while being evacuated by helicopter.

Two days before Evnin died, Rabbi Irving Elson, a chaplain with coalition forces, had contacted the family for information in the hope that he would find Evnin and bring him matzah for Passover, his mother said.

But instead of preparing for the holiday here, the family decided to set Wednesday as the first day of shiva.

His body was just returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware this week, but Mindy Evnin said she couldn't wait for a funeral to start the shiva.

"It's taken so long for me to have a body," she said.

When he is buried, the funeral at Ohavi Zedek will be conducted with full military honors. And he will be interred at the Hebrew Holy Society Cemetery in Burlington with a military headstone.