I smiled as my Academy ring slid easily onto my finger: I was a little nervous it wouldn’t fit.  Although long ago I got to the point where I don it only for special occasions, in this moment I struggle to remember the last time I wore the ring I had received so proudly in the Spring of my junior year .

As the vaguely familiar clunky-ness began to fade, my lip began to quiver and tears welled in the corner of my eyes.  This day would be one of those special occasions.

Earlier in the week Leigh and I had scheduled weekend plans; Then the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard occurred.

On Saturday September 21, 2013 I attended the Celebration of Life for Marty Bodrog. Marty was one of the 12 shooting victims that died last Monday.  He was also a Naval Academy classmate.

I didn’t know Marty well.  I remember him, but have no specific memories or ‘sea stories’ to share about him.  However, I’ve been moved this week by the  depth of our connection through both the experiences we did share, and now the ones we won’t.

Unsure of potential traffic and overcrowding, Leigh and I arrived well over an hour before the service was scheduled to begin.  We were not alone.  In fact most of the 25 or so classmates that made the celebration showed up were also early; it must be a Navy thing.  There is always an underlying nervousness that accompanies the mixed bag of emotions brought on by these impromptu reunions, these ‘special occasions’.  I don’t know how this compares to other Academy classes, but the Class of 1981 has done this too often.  It had been over years since graduation.   Of the 981 classmates that graduated, we’d lost 35.

Yet every time there is a classmate’s funeral, there is the inevitable clash between the rush of  excitement in reconnecting with an old friend and the solemnity of the moment.    It is difficult to explain how hugs, back-slaps, huge smiles and posing for group photos is appropriate while sharing a family’s mourning – but it is.  It just is.

As we sat catching up on family, classmates and sea stories, a slide show of pictures of Marty’s life splashed across the large screens suspended from walls of this Springfield, Virginia mega-church where Marty taught the 3-year-old Sunday school class.   Rotating through his life from the Marty I remember, through the decades of marriage, fatherhood, and the constancy of his beloved Boston Bruins, I wish I had known him.  Each frame was breathtaking beautiful and agonizingly painful as the pictures showed us all the man he had become.

Before the celebration began, Melanie Bodrog, Marty’s wife of 25 years, came to the section where most of USNA ’81 classmates were sitting.  With a stunningly humble grace and relaxed composure, she hugged or shook hands and thanked each one of us.  In her deepest grief, she found the strength and courage to console us.

There are no words to describe the heartbreaking agony I felt watching as Marty’s three daughters, ages 23, 17 and 16, walk up a side aisle to take their seats in the first row. As the music ‘Amazing Grace’ washed over the congregation, it is then I felt the deepest hurt; Marty will never know the joy I have known of walking a daughter down the aisle or the feeling of holding a grandchild in his arms.  My heart ached for all of them.

I can tell you that what I heard in each of the three eulogies given by his oldest daughter, his brother, and his best friend – he was one heck of a man.  The mere presence of the roughly 1,000 people  in attendance seemed to validate every word of praise uttered.

I don’t think there is a sailor of any age that can hold back the tears when the beginning notes of the Navy Hymn begin to play. It certainly didn’t at this service.

What has struck me the most in the days leading up to this celebration is my deep-seated desire to stay connected with my Naval Academy roots.  I have a full, busy life with a lot of choices on how to spend my weekend; sometimes too many choices. This is precisely the reason why I needed to drop everything and reconnect with my classmates and our class spirit;  even if it was under the grimmest of circumstances.Particularly under the grimmest of circumstances.

My father told me this would happen.  Himself a Naval Academy graduate with the class of 1956, he once told me the older he gets, the stronger the pull is back to his classmates becomes.  It’s the shared experiences and shared losses that bind us together. It is the class spirit that continues to move within us long after we throw our caps in the air.

I once viewed ‘Class Spirit’ as ‘Beat Army!” cheers, midnight recon raids armed only with a rag and a can of Brasso, or standing on my chair in the mess hall, chugging a bottle of Tabasco Sauce (thus the nickname ‘Animal’).  Today the spirit of the Class of 1981 reaches deeper and moves more confidently not only in all areas of my life, but also moves me back to the lives of my classmates.

That is what I am finding.  It’s not just the funerals with the passing of Bob Dolan (9/11 – Pentagon) or Jon Wall (cancer) I’ve felt drawn to, it is also celebrating the achievements. From watching Chip Miller relieve Kevin O’Flaherty of command of USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), or watching Kay Hire launch into space (STS-130 Endeavor), or meeting up with Tex Taylor and Gene Juba at Navy-Notre Dame game in Dublin (score is irrelevant),  caching up with Noreen Leahy and Mooch Mucciarone at Army-Navy in Philadelphia (10 in a row! Go Navy!),  I am more easily drawn back to the relationships from my Naval Academy roots than I ever have been before.

USNA Class of 1981 at Celebration of Life for Marty Bodrog.
USNA Class of 1981 at Celebration of Life for Marty Bodrog.
My Naval Academy experience doesn’t make the rest of my life less important – my Naval Academy experience makes the rest of my life richer.  The loss of a classmate doesn’t make me weaker; it reminds me of the strength of our class spirit.

I know am not alone.

Last Tuesday afternoon when the news agencies had confirmed Marty was one of the victims, classmate Carmel Gilliland Chapline suggested on Facebook that members of our class change their individual profile pictures to our class crest:  The response was overwhelming as most of our classmates with Facebook followed her lead with the a post similar to this:

I am following the lead of my classmates and changed my profile picture to our class crest in honor of our fallen classmate CDR Martin Bodrog (ret.). Marty was one of the victims of the US Navy Yard shooter yesterday. Please offer your prayers for his family and all the victims and their families of this senseless killing.

USNA 81 Crest

As for my Class Ring, as proud as I am to wear it, I had to lick my knuckle to slide it off.  It is now back in the ceramic box for safekeeping until the next special occasion. Until then, fair winds and following seas shipmates.

’81 – Second to None!

For Marty: You clearly lived a very purposeful and spirit led life.  Thank you for your service.  God bless you and your family.

Marty Bodrog Obituary:

Other related posts:

Military Funeral:  3 Minutes in Osceola Mills

Naval Service:  The Box

Classmates: When I was a Plebe

Classmates: How I got to Space 

7 thoughts on “A Class Spirit

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