Mark Asher Evnin wanted to improve himself, and the world, too. At 18, after graduating from Vermont’s South Burlington High School in 32 years, the well-liked student athlete and only child of Mindy Evnin joined the Marines.
So while his friends were taking freshman college courses, Mark was in basic training: much to his mother’s chagrin.
"My son, a Jewish Marine, how bizarre," Evnin told The Jewish Week Tuesday. "We come from a professional Jewish family, rabbis, cantors and biochemists."
Indeed, Mark’s grandfather is noted longtime Vermont Rabbi Max Wall, a graduate of Yeshiva University and ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was an army chaplain during World War II and worked in the displaced persons camps. His wife, Miriam, was from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Mark’s uncle was the prominent Cantor Issac Wall from the prestigious Har Zion synagogue in Philadelphia.
But Mark chose his own path, with his mother’s support.
"One thing I let him do is make his own decisions in life," she said.
Stationed at the Marine Corps base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., Mark read Harry Potter books, learned to balance a checkbook and became a Marine sniper.
"He would tell me, ‘Mom, in some ways I’m safer as a sniper because I’m more hidden, unlike the other guys in the infantry,’ " Evnin recalled.
When President Bush ordered troops into Iraq, Mark flew out with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division.
On April 3, during a firefight on the way to Baghdad, his unit of 900 men came under heavy fire from an Iraqi bunker. Mark responded, firing a grenade launcher. But return fire caught him in the abdomen. He died while being whisked by helicopter to a hospital.
Thus, Cpl. Mark Asher Evnin last week became the first identified American Jew to die in the war on Iraq.
Friends and family remembered and honored the young soldier this week.
"I was so close to him," Rabbi Wall said Tuesday as the family waited for word from Dover Air Force Base about when their loved one’s body would be flown home.
"He was a macho kind of guy, yet softhearted and gentle. He didn’t like Hebrew school too much, he didn’t like school too much, but he loved learning. He was a Jewish patriot who believed in this country and loved Israel."
American flags were being flown at half-staff in the South Burlington School District by order of the superintendent. A small memorial was erected in his name.
"As a school and community we are pulling together to help Mark’s family and each other get through this difficult time," said Patrick Burke, the principal at South Burlington High.
Burke recalled Mark as a hard-working student who was involved in athletics and excelled in electronic arts and imaging. Mark had played football and lacrosse; before enlisting he had joined the cross-country ski team. His second home was the imaging lab at the high school.
"At a faculty meeting on April 4 he was remembered as a kind, hard-working, well-liked student," the principal said.
Mark’s mentor and technology teacher, Tim Comolli, shared stories of small and large favors Mark had done for him and others in the school. Football coach Joe MacDonald said Mark was quick to encourage others and never quit.
"Special education staff recalled how compassionate Mark was, telling of how he would make time for classmates with disabilities," said Burke, who offered the school’s guidance department to counsel grieving students, teachers, alumni and staff.
Meanwhile, the family began sitting shiva Wednesday at Mindy Evnin’s Burlington home. A funeral service will be held at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. The burial, with full military honors, will be at Hebrew Holy Society Cemetery.
Jonathan Koopman, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle embedded with Mark’s unit, witnessed and wrote about the soldier’s last moments:
"A young corporal, standing next to one of the armored personnel carriers, fired a grenade launcher at an Iraqi bunker," Koopman wrote. "He turned and caught a bullet in the gut. He went down. A medic went to work on him while the firefight continued 20 yards away. A unit commander says Evnin was awake and coherent, and angry about being hit."
Koopman said Mark appeared to be in stable condition. But "he died aboard a Medivac helicopter before he could get to a surgical hospital in the rear."
Evnin said her son had found himself after joining the Marines three years ago. He didn’t go to college because he thought he wasn’t ready.
"He wanted to prove to himself that he could really meet a challenge," she said, "and he told me some time after basic training he was so proud to discover he could be really good at something and he felt really good about himself."
Evnin was stunned when Mark wrote that he and his Marine buddies got into the Harry Potter books. She sent him two more volumes.
"I loved it. All these rough, tough, macho guys who I’ve seen in photos drinking beer and acting stupid, and here they were reading Harry Potter," she said.
Arriving in Kuwait, Mark wrote to his mother that he was glad to be there and eager to begin fighting for his country.
In his last letter, which she received just days before the war started, Mark wrote that he had decided to go college and study international relations.
"He thought that with how confused the world was … that he could make the world a safer and better place," Evnin said.
Rabbi Wall said his grandson "felt he was part of a world process of liberating people under tyranny.
"He wasn’t a philosopher. He was a doer," the rabbi said. "What he believed in, he believed in absolutely."