By the ‘Rivers of Babylon’: The tears keep flowing

Connecticut Jewish Ledger

Rabbi Carlos Huerta, the Jewish community chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, says he is often asked the same question whenever he speaks at local high schools and colleges: Are soldiers afraid of bullets?

Huerta, a major who spent more than 20 years as a soldier before joining the chaplaincy in 1994, always gives the same answer, he said in a recent phone interview.

“No,” he tells the students, “soldiers eat bullets for breakfast. But what scares soldiers the most is being forgotten.”

Whether the first part of Huerta’s answer is a truthful comment or a rhetorical flourish – there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that soldiers do, indeed, fear bullets, as well as bombs and grenades – many soldiers, past and present, would readily agree with the rest of his answer. Many, in fact, have spoken of how vital it is to know that Americans back home appreciate their efforts, even if they take a dismal view of the conflict itself.

  To show that appreciation and to honor the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq, the Connecticut Jewish Ledger has begun a tradition of recalling those among the fallen who belonged to the Jewish community.

The first such article appeared in the Jewish Ledger nearly two years ago, recalling the nine Jewish servicemen killed in Iraq between April 3, 2003, and May 6, 2004. This article continues that tradition, honoring the eight Jewish soldiers who have fallen in Iraq since then, while a separate story recalls the one Jewish soldier who died in Afghanistan.

Readers should bear in mind that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that any list of Jewish casualties is entirely complete. The Defense Department no longer keeps statistics on the religion of their personnel, and a policy of strict confidentiality forbids military officials from confirming or denying whether a particular soldier was Jewish. It’s also possible that a small percentage of Jewish soldiers are keeping their backgrounds to themselves, especially in Moslem countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The eight new names published on these pages are all part of the public record, appearing in official casualty lists, newspaper accounts or obituary notices. Other sources of information were the Jewish War Veterans, a group based in Washington; Rabbi Mitchell Schranz, the senior Jewish chaplain in Iraq; and Jews in Green (, an online resource and blog for Jewish soldiers, chaplains and military families.

Beyond the figures, though, what is certain is that Americans of Jewish faith have served in their country’s armed forces since the nation was born. History is rife with examples of Jews serving in the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, Korea and, more recently, the Persian Gulf – every battlefield where Americans have fought and, all too often, sacrificed their lives.

Each of those people “put their lives on the line for a greater good,” Huerta said, calling their deeds noble and even heroic. So, too, did the nine Jewish soldiers whose names follow:

Sgt. Alan Sherman

Marine Sgt. Alan D. Sherman, 36, a reservist from Ocean Township, N.J., died June 29, 2004, when a roadside bomb ripped through his convoy, killing Sherman and two other Marines. He left behind were two sons, Joshua, 10, and Logan, 7, who lived with his former wife, Delores; his parents, Austin and Sarah, with whom he lived; and a brother, Michael.

“He wanted to come home to his boys,” said his former wife, with whom he remained close friends, the Associated Press reported after his death. “But he knew he was doing the right thing. He wanted to fight for his boys so they wouldn’t have to do it.”

An active-duty Marine for 10 years, Sherman later became a licensed practical nurse and was planning to become a registered nurse when his unit was called into action once again. But “he never thought twice about going back,” Delores Sherman told the Atlanticville, a local newspaper. “The Marines were his life.”

She went on to describe her former husband as a tough Marine with a “heart of gold,” a sentiment echoed by others at the funeral.

Lance Cpl. Mark Engel

Marine Lance Cpl. Mark E. Engel, 21, wounded while fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province, died in a Texas hospital July 21, 2004.

“He fought a valiant fight for two weeks,” his father, Bill Engel, told a Denver TV station, adding his son was burned over more than 70 percent of his body and sustained severe lung and kidney damage.

Engel joined the Marine Corps within a few months after graduating from high school in 2001 and took part in the first wave of the invasion of Iraq. He enjoyed football, rugby, skiing and the outdoors in general, his sister Dana said.

In addition to his father and sister Dana, Engel is survived by his mother, Sharon, and three other siblings, Rachael, Eric and Brad. Funeral services for Engel took place at Temple Sinai in Denver.

Capt. Michael Tarlavsky

Army Capt. Michael Yury Tarlavsky, 30, was killed August 12, 2004, when his Green Berets unit – fighting insurgents who had blown up a school – encountered small-arms fire in the city of Najaf. Tarlavsky was on his second tour of duty in Iraq, having spent five months there in 2003, and also fought in Afghanistan.

As a young child, Tarlavsky immigrated with his parents to Israel from Latvia, in the former Soviet Union, where he was born. But the family moved again to the United States when he was 5, eventually settling in Clifton, N.J. He later attended Rutgers University on an ROTC scholarship, earning a degree in exercise science, and planned to become a physical therapist.

But he always wanted to be a soldier, his sister, Elina Tarlavsky, told the Newark Star-Ledger, and was upset in the early ’90s when he was too young to participate in the Gulf War. He finally enlisted in 1996 and, at one point, provided security for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – an assignment he often bragged about, she said.

Tarlavsky, a resident of Tennessee before his deployment, was also a husband and the father of a 10-month-old son, Joseph Michael, when he died. He and his wife, Tricia, an Army captain he married in 2002, shared a passion for marathons, scuba diving and rock climbing.

1st Lt. Andrew Stern

Marine 1st Lieutenant Andrew K. Stern, 24, a Memphis soldier who loved life at a fast pace, according to the Associated Press, was killed in battle September 16, 2004.

“He was rambunctious from the get-go,” his father, Rich Stern, said. “But he became as good a son as there could be. He became my best friend.”

Stern grew up in suburban Chicago and moved to Tennessee in 1997, when his father was transferred to a new job. He attended the University of Tennessee, where he was captain of the rowing crew and a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

His father said the Marine, only a month away from leaving Iraq when he died, was looking forward to riding the motorcycle he had bought shortly beforehand.

Staff Sgt. Michael Shackelford

Army Staff Sgt. Michael B. Shackelford, 25, of Grand Junction, Colo., died Nov. 28, 2004, from small-arms fire while his unit was on foot patrol in Ramadi.

Recalled by relatives as an adventurous youth with a rebellious streak, Shackelford followed family tradition by joining the military, his older brother, James, told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Their great-grandfather and grandfather were in the Navy; James served in the Air Force; and their father, Andy, Michael’s role model, is an Army veteran.

“He believed in what he was doing,” James Shackelford said, adding that Michael had also served in Korea and Kosovo.

One of Michael Shackelford’s friends from both high school and the military, Marine Sgt. Jesse Leech, described the 6-foot, 1-inch Michael as just as adventurous as ever.

“He was one of those guys that’s like dynamite in a box,” Leech said. “He was always in a good mood. He’d joke about everything.”

Spc. Benyahmin Ben Yahudah

Army Spc. Benyahmin Ben Yahudah, 24, a combat field medic, died July 13, 2005, when a suicide bomber drove into his patrol, the Forward reported three weeks later. Ben Yahudah had been handing out candy and toys to children in a Baghdad neighborhood when the bomber struck, killing the medic and close to 20 Iraqi children, according to fellow soldiers. The Army honored him posthumously with the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

A native of Atlanta, Ben Yahudah grew up in that city’s community of Hebrew Israelites, an African-American group that claims to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, the Forward said. His uncle, Elakhaz Hacohane, a priest with the Hebrew Israelite community in Israel, said Ben Yahudah had often visited that community, which is based mostly in the Negev town of Dimona.

Ben Yahudah’s parents homeschooled him and his siblings because of their religion, and he apparently excelled, earning his high-school equivalency diploma at 15. He later attended Athens Technical College, where he studied marketing management and electronics, and joined the Army in 2003.

One soldier who served in Iraq with Ben Yahudah praised him in a message to the Forward, writing that “Benyahmin was what every medic and every soldier wants to be. He lived his life in a terrific way and he is directly responsible for saving the lives of many of his fellow soldiers.”

Sgt. Howard Allen

Army Sgt. Howard Paul Allen, 31, an Arizona National Guardsman assigned to a Military Police company, died Sept. 26, 2005 when a bomb exploded near his Humvee in Baghdad. The incident took away “a fine soldier, a wonderful husband, father, son, and a friend to many,” the head of the Arizona National Guard told the Associated Press.

Allen, a resident of Mesa, Ariz., fought in a war “that frustrated and, at times, depressed him,” the Arizona Republic reported. He referred to Iraq as “hell” over the Internet and disagreed with the White House over why the United States had begun the conflict, his wife, Patience, said.

But the father of a 3-year-old son, Devlin, and two stepchildren, Caitlyn and Edwin Stevens, also re-enlisted for another six years shortly before he died, his wife added. “He took that job extremely seriously. He did what he wanted them to do.”

Moreover, Allen, a former military cook, “didn’t have to go on any missions” while in Iraq, said Robert Stevens, Patience’s former husband and a close friend of the couple, in an interview with the Jewish Ledger. But he received training as an MP, Stevens added, and, instead of staying in the mess hall, “he volunteered to go out with his unit.”

The Website Jews in Green also described Allen, a Navy veteran before he joined the National Guard, as “a brother and friend” to other Jews in Iraq and as a soldier who adhered to his faith “even in the most difficult circumstances.”

Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Jacobson

Air Force Airman 1st Class Elizabeth N. Jacobson – believed to be the first female member of the Air Force killed in Iraq – died Sept. 28, 2005, when her Humvee was hit by an explosive device. Although Jacobson, 21, had a non-Jewish mother and was raised a Christian, she chose to wear dog tags that identified her as Jewish, and both her father and grandfather believe that she intended to convert to Judaism, the JTA reported last fall.

A resident of South Florida, she also associated with the Jewish community in Iraq, Rabbi Mitchell Schranz wrote in an email.

Jacobson attended high school in South Florida while living with her grandparents, a move she made after her parents’ divorce left her confused, according to one Website that honored her. The terrorist attacks of September 11th took place at the time, motivating Jacobson to join the military.

“I told her over two years ago that enlisting after 9/11 meant she would definitely see combat,” recalled her father, David Jacobson of Vallejo, Calif., a role model for Elizabeth and a formerly secular Jew turned Orthodox.

“She said she was prepared for that. She believed that being there [in Iraq] meant not fighting here.”

In an interview with the Florida Jewish News, Jacobson added that his daughter also believed her presence in Iraq would, in essence, protect Israel.

Jacobson, who had two sisters, hoped to pursue a career in law enforcement when she returned from Iraq. Other details to emerge from newspaper accounts: She loved Spongebob Squarepants, craved the smell of cut grass and wanted two sons.

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