As a young boy, Mark Evnin insisted on wearing a yarmulke to the Boy Scouts and later talked of enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces.
Now, even without his body, the family of the first known Jewish casualty of the Iraq War is sitting shiva at their home in Burlington, Vt.
On April 1, Mindy Evnin received 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 Oceanside, Calif., in February, she said. "You can always tell his mood by his voice, and he sounded good."
Two days later, 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 as she was preparing her house for the shiva. "He was like a sabra."
And like most Israeli men, Evnin 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. Wall, now rabbi emeritus of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, served as a chaplain with the Army's 9th Infantry Division 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.
After meeting Israeli soldiers when he became a Marine, his mother said, her son 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 from age 8 to 12. His father recalled that when his son was born, "he looked like an angel."
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.
Rabbi Joshua Chasan, who currently leads Ohavi Zedek, recalled that Evnin attended Hebrew school in U.S. Army fatigues.
"There's no doubt about it, Mark did it his own way," he said.
When he joined the Boy Scouts as a youngster, his mother said, he wanted to wear a yarmulke, even though he was not observant. When a fellow scout said the blond-haired, blue-eyed Evnin did not look Jewish, "He turned around and said, 'You don't look Christian,'" his mother recalled.
His father and others said it was the Marine Corps that gave Evnin a sense of direction in life
"He metamorphosed from a gentle, loving kind of child to a hard, serious, focused man," his father said.
Â His crucial role, according to San Francisco Chronicle reporter John Koopman, who rode with Evnin, was both 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 apparently was hit 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.
"It sounded like Mark didn't know he was dying, which I was glad for," Mindy Evnin said.
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. The marine's body was 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.
Mindy Evnin said that's what "he would have wanted." Â
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