Under a cloudless sky that framed a line of flags snapping in a steady breeze, the remains of Marine Sgt. Robert Hendriks were buried with military honors during a graveside ceremony Wednesday at Calverton National Cemetery attended by hundreds of mourners.
Hendriks, 25, died April 8 when his armored vehicle struck a roadside bomb near Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, the U.S. military’s main base in Afghanistan. A Marine colleague said Hendriks typically served as a turret gunner aboard armored mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles known as MRAPs and often used by U.S. troops on patrol.
The blast killed two other Marines — Staff Sgt. Christopher K.A. Slutman, 43, an FDNY firefighter from Newark, Delaware, and Staff Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Following a rifle salute Wednesday that shattered the graveyard’s noontime silence, a lone bugler blew a mournful rendition of taps amid ranks of white tombstones that stretched toward the horizon and marked the final resting places for generations of American military veterans.
A pair of Marines then stepped toward the parents of Hendriks — known to his friends as “Robby” — as they sat by their son’s grave. The Marines offered crisply folded coffin flags to each of them, and quiet condolences on behalf of “a grateful nation.”
Hendriks’ tombstone bears a reference to the number ‘3,’ the family code for “I love you” that started on weekday mornings in Locust Valley some 15 years ago when he would say goodbye to his dad, Erik, at the school bus.
“Three,” the two would tell each other — a discreet workaround drummed up to spare a boy from being embarrassed in front of his schoolmates.
‘3’ was the final message Hendriks texted to his mother from Afghanistan the day before he died and was carved into the tombstone marking the grave of the fallen Marine.
Hendricks, part of a family with deep military roots extending from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq back to World War II, was promoted posthumously from corporal to sergeant.
His tombstone reads in part:
In Our Hearts 3”
More than 100 members of Hendriks’ Garden City-based unit, the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines reserve infantry, waited in line to pay their respects. One by one, each approached the urn holding Hendriks’ ashes, paused for silent moments, then offered solemn salutes.
In the days since his death, many who knew Hendriks remembered him as a free spirit who liked to worked on cars or lift weights with popular music blaring in the background from another era — the 1950s. Some of those who served with him had trouble Wednesday putting into words how it felt to lose a friend and fellow Marine.
“It’s still too fresh to talk about,” said a Marine from Hendriks’ battalion who declined to give his name. He said he joined the Marines within a month of Hendriks and trained with him as a machine-gunner.
Hendriks’ parents said they were comforted by the emotional outpourings of Long Islanders since their son’s death, which has united neighbors, teachers, veterans organizations, motorcycle clubs, uniformed personnel and others in expressions of sympathy.
“I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and love from all of our friends, family, and people we don’t even know,” his mother, Felicia Arculeo, of Freeport, said in a text message. “And I’m forever in gratitude to all of the Marines who have stood by us through all of this.”
Thousands of people, many carrying American flags, lined roadways along the route that brought the slain Marine back to Long Island Friday escorted by his younger brother, Joseph, also serving in Afghanistan at the time of the attack.
Onlookers toting the Stars and Stripes were out again Wednesday morning as a motorcade made its way to the cemetery from a funeral home in Glen Head. Fire departments suspended giant American flags above overpasses on the Long Island Expressway.
Many of those who attended the graveside memorial service, which extended for more than an hour to accommodate the attendees who filed past his grave, said they had never met Hendriks but still felt the pull to be there.
One of them was Doug Gamble, commander of Locust Valley American Legion Post 962.
“I didn’t know him, but this is out of respect,” said Gamble, himself a Marine veteran who served in the 1950s.
“This is very impressive, very respectful. The Marines did a good job,” said Gamble as a line of Marines in dress blue uniforms waited to offer Hendricks a final salute.