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A life lived for others

Friends remember Martin Bodrog, who died in the Washington Navy Yard Shooting, as a man devoted to serving his community

Martin Bodrog Associated Press/Photo courtesy of the Bodrog family

A life lived for others

WASHINGTON—Selma Nunes, a leader with the Eastern Fairfax Young Life community in Northern Virginia, used to tease Martin Bodrog for always wearing on his lapel a small pin with the letters YL when he went to work at Washington’s Navy Yard.

Nunes asked him why he wore the Young Life logo to work when the organization does Gospel-focused outreach to high school students not naval personnel and civilian contractors.

“Because if somebody asks me about the pin then I get to share with them too,” Bodrog told Nunes, who stopped teasing him about the pin.

“His life was very mission-focused that way,” Nunes told me just days after Bodrog, 54, died in the Sept. 16 shooting at the Navy Yard. He was one of 12 victims who didn’t make it home that day. The incident was the deadliest attack on a domestic military base since 2009.

Bodrog leaves behind a wife, Melanie, of 25 years and three daughters: Isabel, 23; Sophie, 17; and Rita, 16. He also, according to friends, left behind deep community roots anchored in a faith he was unashamed to both share and live.

Bodrog served 22 years in the Navy, but he found time to intentionally invest in other areas of life. From his work with Young Life, which continued for close to 20 years, to his years teaching Sunday school for young children, to the neighborhood Bible study he helped start, Bodrog lived a life of fellowship and service that is difficult to achieve or sustain in a place as transitory as the greater Washington, D.C. area. Bodrog understood what it meant to live in community.

Nunes said Bodrog was a driving force in getting Young Life established in the area and stayed committed to the organization even though his three daughters did not participate. He remained on the Young Life committee and steered it through the high school’s transformation from a traditional suburban school to a more multicultural student body.

A few years ago, Nunes was busy corralling students onto a bus at 5 a.m. so they could begin a 15-hour drive to a Young Life camp in New York. It was still dark and rain poured onto the parking lot. But Bodrog showed up, driving more than 20 miles one way so he could hand out bagels and bottles of water to the students. He then used his umbrella to escort arriving children to the bus.

“He wasn’t even going on the trip, but he just wanted to make sure the students had breakfast,” Nunes said. Bodrog often would take care of a student’s camp costs quietly, if that student could not afford to go.

“A lot of people struggle with what they do and ask themselves ‘if this is the right place for me,’” Nunes said. “But I bet you that he got up every morning saying, ‘what I do today is my calling.’”

That calling included a career as a Navy Surface Warfare Officer, where he was one of the leaders in designing and procuring ships. It also included years of volunteering at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Va. The church will host a memorial for Bodrog on Saturday. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery at a later date.

Steve Holley, one of Immanuel’s pastors, described how Bodrog, who stood over 6 feet tall, would get down on his knees to interact with the children he taught on Sundays. The children, Holley said, were drawn to Bodrog’s winsome smile and gentle demeanor.

“Here is this surface warfare Navy guy during the week who likely took on his toughest challenge on the weekends when he taught the truths of Scripture to 3-year-olds,” Holley said. Holley could not remember how long Bodrog has taught the class. But his daughter, now a senior in high school, had Bodrog as a teacher when she was 3.

Jesse Johnson, the lead teaching pastor at Immanuel, wrote on the church’s website how one Sunday several years ago Bodrog would not let a man pick up a little girl because he was not wearing the security ID bracelet: “Marty did not recognize him—the mother had dropped her off—and refused to turn over the child. The father became agitated and demanded that Marty step aside. Instead he put his imposing frame in the doorway, making a naval blockade of the room. Eventually the mom came with the bracelet. Later Marty downplayed the situation: ‘I was only following orders!’”

Bodrog did not neglect his own family. When one of his daughters latched onto ballet, Bodrog, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and an avid Boston Bruins hockey fan, gladly became a ballet father, chauffeuring her to practice and performances. His house became the central hangout spot for his daughters’ youth groups.

Bodrog also devoted himself to a neighborhood Bible study he helped start 11 years ago. Fred Schwien, who has attended the Bible study since the beginning, said Bodrog was often quiet.

“But when Marty spoke up everybody listened because we knew it would be profound and discerning,” Schwien said. “He was a rock of a man. Just calm all the time.”

The study group doesn’t solely read Scriptures. Members often spend time together outside: camping and hiking during a trip to the Shenandoah National Park or sitting around a fire pit and looking at the stars through a giant telescope. But the study members knew they would not see Bodrog on Fridays in the fall. Instead, you’d find Bodrog at the high school football game, supporting his Young Life students.

“He never talked about himself,” Schwien said. “You’d have to draw stuff out of him because he was always more concerned with drawing stuff out of you.”

The Navy was so high on Bodrog, according to Schwien, that when he retired, the Navy converted his job from a military position to a civilian one and hired him back. He had just moved from the Pentagon to the Navy Yard offices earlier this year.

This is not the first time Immanuel Bible Church has experienced such tragedy. The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon killed one church member and severely burned another. Holley said the church learned how to be “spiritual first responders” to families struck by such unexpected violence.

When the news first broke about the Navy Yard shooting, Holley tired to get a headcount of church members who worked in the area. That night, he learned that Bodrog had never called home to check in. Schwien called Bodrog’s cell phone at noon and got his voicemail. Then Schwien called again at 3 p.m. After work, Schwien went to Bodrog’s house to sit with his family.

Holley said pastors in this situation must be prepared to answer the question: Why would God allow this to happen? Part of his answer, Holley said, is admitting that we might not know or understand or like what happens. But believers must trust that God “has an ultimate purpose in all of this.”

Holley is praying that nonbelievers might hear about Bodrog’s life of service and come to a deeper understanding of what it means to live out the Gospel. Christians may read about how Bodrog served his church and community and strive to deepen their own bonds and commitments to individuals and groups around them, ignoring the easy temptation to say they are too busy.

Nunes said Bodrog wasn’t pushy, just very in touch with who God wanted him to be: “He was just a Young Life leader to everybody he was around. From coworkers to church members, he was always out doing contact work.”

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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