Making it count: A boat captain’s mission to bring meaning to work

Survey vessels will honor Staff Sgt. Vernon Martin and Spc. Christopher Holland.

Savannah District to dedicate 2 new survey vessels to fallen soldiers with local ties, April 8. 

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Six years ago when it was time to replace Savannah District’s aging fleet of survey vessels, Boat Captain Jim Bodenrader knew exactly where to start: their names.

Sure, mounds of paperwork would have to be processed, along with authorizations and appropriations, but their namesakes — the soul of the vessels where Bodenrader and his team would spend long hours working — mattered most.

“We wanted to personalize these boats and tie the Corps to the community,” said Bodenrader, a retired Coast Guard chief boatswain’s mate, as he stood proudly in front of the new survey vessels. “But we were looking for something a bit more.”

The vessels, which will be christened April 8 at the Engineer Depot on Hutchinson Island, honor Army Staff Sgt. Vernon Martin and Spc. Christopher Holland. Martin and Holland were native sons of Savannah and Brunswick, Georgia, respectively, who died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively.

Diving down
From 2016-2017, Bodenrader burned the midnight oil researching leads online, contacting veterans organizations and cold calling, ultimately narrowing the list to 10 soldiers with local ties who had died in combat. He eventually pared that down to two: Martin and Holland.

He spent the next year learning these soldiers’ stories and attempting to reach out to their families to obtain permission to dedicate the vessels in their honor.

Initially stoic behind dark sunglasses and his full, salt-and-pepper beard, Bodenrader’s face lit up as he recounted details of the soldiers’ lives and relayed stories their friends and families had shared with him.

Having served for 23 years himself, his connection with their experiences and the camaraderie associated with military service was evident.

A quick introduction to our newest survey vessels: S/V Holland (left) and S/V Martin.

“The cool thing is that they were just regular guys … I guess that’s what makes the story more special,” he said. “You realize the people that are going over there are not these supermen and women, they’re just people doing a job.”

Connecting with the families of these fallen soldiers proved more difficult than he initially thought.

“Contacting families randomly can be a little delicate,” he said.

After exhausting personal connections, Bodenrader established an unofficial Facebook page, which detailed his goal of establishing contact and creating a dialogue with family members, friends and fellow soldiers who had served with Martin and Holland. He continues to use the platform to share photos and updates on the vessels’ progress.

“I was impressed, surprised and deeply moved,” said Jim Holland, Chris’ father, upon learning of the Corps’ intent to dedicate one of the vessels to his son. “It’s going on 18 years since we lost Chris.”

Bodenrader really struggled to get in touch with the Martin family until randomly, everything fell into place.

At a 2017 New Year’s Eve party, Bodenrader found himself sharing the story about naming the new vessels with a mutual friend. 

At one point that friend stopped him cold.

He had graduated high school with Martin and was good friends with his brother-in-law. Bodenrader said they both got goosebumps.

“I need you like you have no idea,” Bodenrader told the friend. “Please reach out to the family and tell them I’m not some crazy guy.”

A few connections later, Connie Brown, Martin’s mother, called Bodenrader.

“I was shocked. Honored. Surprised. Tearful,” Brown said. “It just totally blew me away.”

By the time Bodenrader made contact with her, it had been nearly a decade since Martin’s death. 

Soldiers’ stories
Staff Sgt. Vernon Martin was born in Brooklyn, New York, March 20, 1984. His family later moved to Savannah, where he attended Sol C. Johnson High School and graduated in 2002. He joined the Army two years later.

“He was a clown,” Brown said. “He loved to joke around. He loved kids. His nieces and nephews meant the world to him.”

Brown described her son as dedicated and caring.

“Once he made up his mind, he stuck with it,” she said.

Connie Brown, Staff Sgt. Vernon Martin’s mother, stands next to the S/V Martin at the Engineer Depot, March 31.

Martin died Oct. 3, 2009, in Afghanistan after his unit, comprised of 53 soldiers at Combat Outpost Keating, fought off an assault by 400 Taliban fighters.

The story of the battle that day, where eight members of Martin’s unit died and 27 more were wounded, along with a detailed account of daily life on the remote base, were memorialized in Jake Tapper’s 2012 book, “Outpost – An Untold Story of American Valor.” The book was made into a movie called “The Outpost” in 2020.

Martin was interred at Bonaventure Cemetery, about a mile down the road from his high school.

Spc. Christopher Holland was born Aug. 19, 1977, in Brunswick, Georgia. He graduated from Brunswick High School in 1995, and from Valdosta State University in 2000 with a degree in business management.

Holland joined the Army in 2002 as a combat medic. He died Dec. 17, 2003, when his unit was conducting a dismounted patrol and was ambushed in an urban neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

“(Chris) was kinda shy — at least I thought he was until I started hearing stories about him in college and on duty in the Army,” Holland said.

Mary Jo Abbott Holland and Amanda Holland, Spc. Christopher Holland’s mother and sister, respectively, stand next to the S/V Holland at the Engineer Depot, March 23.

Holland learned through a friend, who had read the dedication plaque on the side of S/V Holland online, that soldiers in his son’s unit had received 68 Purple Hearts. All of those soldiers survived, thanks in large part to his son’s expertise.

“He had to train his unit how to administer IVs,” Holland remembered, “and he used himself as a guinea pig.”

Lasting legacies

The S/V Holland and S/V Martin sit on trailers prior to survey training, recently.

The S/V Martin and S/V Holland are replacing the S/V Georgia and S/V Downs, which were nearly 50 and 40 years old, respectively, Bodenrader said.

The new state-of-the-art vessels boast aluminum, 35-foot catamaran hulls and dual outboard motors (compared to fiberglass and inboard motors), which will dramatically decrease maintenance time and costs, allow for more efficient transit times, and are the standard for current Corps of Engineers vessels.

According to Chris Wheeler, hydro-survey section chief, the vessels will allow the teams to conduct surveys safely and more efficiently. They will serve a critical role assessing pre- and post-dredging depths, which provide quality assurance for dredging contracts and help determine accurate costs for dredge material removed. The vessels will be used to conduct monthly condition surveys in Savannah and Brunswick harbors and approaches, as well, Wheeler said.

During hurricane season, if the port is forced to close, survey vessels spring into action immediately after the storm passes, checking for shoaling or debris to ensure commerce is restored to the nation’s fourth largest port (Savannah) and second busiest roll-on, roll-off trade (Savannah and Brunswick, combined).

Bodenrader, the other two boat captains, and the rest of the hydro-survey section have already begun conducting training surveys on the vessels leading up to the April 8 dedications.

So what would these soldiers think about having boats named in their honor?

“He believed in friendship and getting people together,” Jim Holland said. “He was an organizer and believed in getting things done. It’s nice to know his name will live on … basically forever.”

Connie Brown didn’t hesitate.

“Child, he’d be on cloud nine,” she said.

“I remember when we brought his body home. It was a Friday, five to six in the evening, and all the traffic had stopped on (Interstate) 516. He’d be the one to have Savannah at a standstill,” she said. “Only Vernon.”

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

About U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multimillion dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on Facebook.com/SavannahCorps
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