Eighteen years ago, Mark Bodrog was a senior at Lenape Regional High School.
He remembers the first Tuesday after Labor Day at the beginning of the school year, the girl running down the hallway, screaming. He remembers friends heading to armed forces recruiters before the end of the week.
The son of a Marine, Mark Bodrog didn’t enlist in his own military career in the wake of 9/11 (his father talked him down from it). But he did begin his own tour with the Marines in between gaining two degrees from Rutgers University.
The plight of veterans is always on his mind.
It’s why he helped pass legislation at Rutgers-Camden for honorably discharged vets to receive academic credits upon enrollment to help reintegrate into the academic world. Bodrog took the same idea and has helped introduce three legislative bills within the state.
“Colleges weren’t doing it, legislators weren’t doing it,” he said. “We had to get moving.”
Bodrog’s passion for veterans affairs didn’t stop there. His current project is focused on ending perhaps the most troubling epidemic among struggling vets: suicide.
With the help of fellow Marine Corps veteran Hunter Haskins, Bodrog published “22 a Day: A Tragedy in Three Acts” in May. Written as a play, the 179-page book sheds light on the sheer number of veterans who take their own lives every day.
“The statistic that’s out there, 22 a day, is our community,” said Bodrog, a resident of Blackwood in Gloucester Township. “Every day, (almost) once an hour, there’s a veteran out there that’s taking his life. I was talking to my buddy, we have to do something to bring awareness to this. There’s no way I can go out there to every veteran and help. So we thought the best idea was to come up with something interactive, something to raise awareness, something that people could touch, taste, smell, feel, see and interact with. The way I imagined it is like the Vietnam wall, you walk up to it and you see the names, you see your face. What we wanted to do with this book is (have) you see the names and the faces through reading it and feel what’s going on. We wanted something people could interact with and make them care about and maybe want to try to fix.”
The story tells the tale of two friends, Mark and Bettz, who served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and their mission to end the veteran suicide epidemic. The reader (or viewer, if you’re watching the play) follows along with Mark and Bettz over a 24-hour period and the 22 veterans who take their lives throughout the story.
The people who die within the story are real; Bodrog both did research and drew from his own experiences in writing “22 a Day.”
“When I was in the military, there were suicides, I’m not going to say there weren’t, but when I got out I started to get a lot of phone calls, one of the Marines I was in Afghanistan with, just had a wife and baby, and he killed himself,” said Bodrog, who served two combat deployments to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. “It just started to hit home. What could I have done? Could I have led them better? You always ask. Could I have said something, could I have done something? These are men and women that served the country. They deserve better. You can’t help everybody but you can damn sure try to do something.
“And I started getting more phone calls. ‘I heard about this one, did you hear about this one, or did you hear about that guy, or did you hear about that girl?’ It was almost like an everyday thing for me at one point, it was like I couldn’t go a day without a call, an email, or reading something about another veteran killing himself.”
Granted his book is less than 3 months old, Bodrog hasn’t found a theater yet that’s willing to put the play on display. He understands it’s heavy material, “pretty real stuff.” But he also knows it’s a hugely important issue that people need to know about.
“(The two main characters) meet up and come up with a plan to try to fix (the veteran suicide epidemic),” he said. “It is a tragedy. The ending is very tragic. But through the play, it actually takes you from start to finish on how to fix the issues. It’s comprehensive.”
If the project’s goal is to save lives, it’s already a success story. Bodrog recently received an email from a service member in Pennsylvania who said that, after reading the book, she brought it to her psychiatrist and said she didn’t want to kill herself anymore.
“So it’s been kind of real,” Bodrog said. “The goal is to educate. And fix the issues. Now can I fix it all? No. But can I save some, absolutely.”
Bodrog’s “22 a Day: A Tragedy in Three Acts” can be found at its publisher iuniverse.com as well as on Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s websites.
Thoughts of suicide? The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention can be reached by phone (800-273-8255) or text (741741). They are also on Facebook.