Maj. David "Bull" Gurfein, a Long Island native who re-enlisted in the Marines after 9-11, is carrying with him in the battlefields of Iraq a small chunk of concrete from the remains of the World Trade Center.
"It was 9-11 that triggered his desire to go back, especially after he went to Ground Zero," said his mother, Vivien. "He showed his [military] card and the police and firemen there handed him some pieces of concrete. He was weeping when he saw what happened there. … They said to him, ‘Go get ’em.’"
Gurfein, who celebrated his 38th birthday on Wednesday, is a graduate of Great Neck South High School who missed his graduation to enter boot camp at the age of 17 with his parents’ permission.
He took a leave from the military in 1998 to spend two years earning a master’s degree in business administration at Harvard University, where he was president of his graduating class in 2000.
Gurfein was working for Goldman Sachs when 9-11 occurred and he returned to the service.
His first assignment was in Afghanistan, where he spent a year "searching the caves hunting for [Osama] bin Laden," Vivien Gurfein said, receiving a Bronze Star for his work. He was reassigned to the Persian Gulf "because he had experience from the first Gulf War."
He carried a piece of the concrete with him in Afghanistan, too.
Last week, Mrs. Gurfein said she and her husband, Arthur, were watching television in their Manhasset, L.I., home when they saw a member of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force tear down a picture of Saddam Hussein.
"I said [to my husband], ‘That is something David would do,’" she recalled. "Then the soldier turned with a profile and I recognized that it was David. The only difference is that he was wearing a mustache, which he did in the Gulf War until it was over."
And true to his nature, Mrs. Gurfein said, he then began shaking hands and greeting Iraqi citizens who had gathered around him.
"This is the way he has always been," she said.
Most other families with relatives in the war have not been as fortunate to see their loved ones on television.
Judy Ledger of Atlanta said her son, Matt, 24, is with the 101 Airborne Division and was at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait last Saturday when grenades were thrown into officers’ tents, killing one and injuring 15 others. A fellow soldier has been arrested in connection with the attack.
"My husband and I heard about it on TV, but we assumed that our son was with the 3rd Brigade and already on the way to Baghdad," she said. "We went out to dinner that evening with friends and at about 11 my cell phone rang. The person on the other end said she was calling from Fort Campbell [in Kentucky] and asked if I was aware that my son was in Kuwait. I said no, that I thought he was headed for Baghdad.
"She said that some were still in Kuwait and asked if I realized there had been a grenade attack. I said yes and then thought she was going to say he was dead. But she said that she was just calling to say he was OK. Her husband is my son’s battalion chief, and they were calling to make sure we knew he was safe."
Ledger said her daughter Ilana, 21, also is in the Army. Ilana, based at Fort Sill, Okla., volunteered to go to the Persian Gulf. Both of her children’s fiancees are in the Army, too, but not in the Gulf.
"It was after Sept. 11 that they joined," she said of her children. "It’s very stressful because I’m worrying about not only my kids but their fiancees. It’s disconcerting. We’re on pins and needles. I don’t get any sleep; I’m usually up by 3."
# "Whenever we hear that a helicopter has gone down, as much as the statistics are with you, you always jump," Ledger said. "It’s scary, very scary."
Barbara Schwab, a librarian at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., said her son Stephen, 22, is now stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and is waiting to be sent to the Persian Gulf.
"His orders read that he will be away up to 18 months," she said. "My husband and I are going to Texas to be with him for Pesach. This might be our last chance to spend time with him for a long while."
Schwab confessed that she and her husband, a Vietnam veteran, "really tried hard" to keep Stephen from joining the military. But she said he has "always been a tikkun olam [repairing the world] person."
"He was a regional officer for USY [United Synagogue Youth] and was active in social action. He would always be the one to make friends with those who had no friends," Schwab said.
Even before Stephen is shipped overseas, Schwab said nervousness already has set in.
"I have the TV and radio on," she said. "I can’t stand it."
Schwab said also that she found the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s listserve, TheBrave@uscj.org, for Jewish families of military personnel has been particularly helpful.
"It’s something that keeps me busy," she said, adding that it reminds her that "there are a lot of other Jewish families out there coping with the same issues because we don’t think of the military as a Jewish endeavor."
Schwab added that she recently "had a big discussion" trying to get Stephen to get a new dog tag before he is shipped out that does not include his religion.
"He said he would ask the rabbi,’ she said.
Aboard one of the U.S. ships engaged in the Iraq war last Friday night, Rabbi Maurice Kaprow, deputy fleet chaplain of the 6th Fleet, said the services he conducted "on the first Shabbat of hostilities were most meaningful."
"With its proximity to Purim, it almost seemed as if we were getting an opportunity to stop a modern-day Haman from continuing his plans to kill those who oppose him," he said.
In an e-mail to The Jewish Week, Rabbi Kaprow wrote that he pointed out in his sermon that "the festival of Purim marks our triumph over those who would exterminate us for our beliefs. I drew the parallel to the current world situation where there are those people out there who would do to us today as Haman did then."