During time spent in Iraq, Matt Cohen received a care package from his brother that included a copy of the novel Exodus by Leon Uris, as well as stories of the Maccabees and their triumph over the forces of Hellenism. Those are fitting tales for the 21-year-old from Havertown. Like those heroes, he's been doing some battling of his own: The U.S. Marine recently completed his second tour of duty in Iraq.
Cohen has spent the last three years serving in the Marine Corps; after high school — where he was a team captain in both football and lacrosse — he opted for the service rather than more schooling.
"Everybody goes to college," said Cohen, now a lance corporal. Enlisting, however "was a higher calling," he explained, citing patriotism — as well as "the sense of adventure, the sense of pride and belonging" — as primary motivators that drew him to this particular branch of military service.
Yet he also pointed out that the Iraq war, which began when Cohen was in high school, fueled his long-held drive to serve.
"When the war kicked off, it made me really want to serve my country, and get in the fight and do what I could," he said.
After graduating from Haverford High School in 2006, Cohen left for boot camp that August, leaving behind his parents, younger sister and twin brother to join the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, as an infantryman serving as a team leader. A year later, he shipped off for his first tour.
He spent seven months in Karmah, a small city outside of Fallujah, working at an Iraqi police station. At the time, he was involved in counter-insurgency operations, including patrols and combat raids, in addition to offering aid to the Iraqi people.
After a short respite, he returned to Iraq in May, and was stationed in Waleed, on the Syrian border, as part of an anti-smuggling operation. Again, he worked in counter-insurgency, but said that other work involved "screening people as they came in and out of the country to make sure they weren't terrorists."
Over in the Arab world, Cohen said that he was cognizant of the general population's attitude toward Jews.
"Most Iraqis feel the same way as the rest of the Arab world — they don't like Jews. As a Marine, my job foremost is I'm a United States Marine, but as a Jew, it kind of puts a bigger target on your head and makes it a bit more personal," he said.
He noted that he had considered joining the Israeli Defense Force, but said that he ultimately became a Marine because of patriotism and the fact that there was no language barrier.
Cohen has been a longtime member of Temple Beth Hillel/ Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Wynnewood, where he became a Bar Mitzvah.
Cohen said that the corps is a far cry from the Main Line — at least as far as its Jewish population is concerned.
"For me, it's kind of like an ambassador role because I'm the first Jewish guy a lot of these guys have ever met," he said.
Although the Marine Corps public-affairs office did not have an estimate on the number of Jews serving, it's believed to be low. Cohen said he suspected he was one of only about four in his entire 1,000-strong battalion.
He also pointed out that many of his comrades often come from the Deep South, where the Jewish population is smaller, and he's often the first member of the tribe they've known — which he considers a privilege.
"A lot of people stereotype Jews as weak and bookwormish, but they meet me and realize that's not the norm. Jews are a strong people, and we're very proud of who we are," said Cohen. "I was happy I could show them that we're not all Chasidic Jews in yarmulkes."
Cohen spent Thanksgiving and the following week with family in the area, before heading back to his base in Hawaii, and later, possibly shipping off to Okinawa, Japan. He said that with only nine months left, he's "kind of waiting my time out."
He also noted that he plans to attend Temple University to study business, and maybe even visit Israel on a Birthright trip.
Once back in civilian life, he stressed, he plans to take it "one step at a time."