The mother of a Locust Valley Marine killed in Afghanistan described herself as "broken into a million pieces" but was comforted to know that her younger son, himself a Marine, will escort his brother’s body back to the United States.
Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, was among three Marine reservists killed Monday when their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb near the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
“That was my son, my hero,” Felicia Arculeo of Freeport said in a text message to Newsday. “But in the end, he was America’s son, willing to pay the ultimate price for our freedom, a proud, brave United States Marine.”
The attack also killed New York City firefighter Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, whose Defense Department hometown of record was Newark, Delaware, and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania.
A Pentagon news release said the Marines were conducting combat missions in the Parwan province. They were part of the 14,000-troop American contingent remaining in Afghanistan to train government troops and to conduct counterinsurgency strikes.
Hendriks was an infantry machine gun specialist who previously had served east of the Black Sea in Georgia, military records show.
“As a parent in the wake of such a tragedy, losing my child in combat, the one thing I thank God and the Marine Corps for is getting my son Joseph to where he needed to be to take his brother home,” Arculeo said in the text.
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Joseph Hendriks, Arculeo's only other child, is a Marine serving in Afghanistan and will accompany the coffin bearing his brother’s body on a flight home. “We are inconsolable and broken into a million pieces, but I am, and always will be, proud to call my sons United States Marines,” Arculeo's text read. She got the knock on the door about Robert Hendriks on Monday evening. His body is due back in the United States by Sunday.
Arculeo described Robert Hendriks, a 2012 graduate of Locust Valley High School, as kind, compassionate and determined.
“Robby was tough, hardworking and never gave up,” Arculeo said in the text. “Yet as tough as he was, his heart was his greatest attribute.”
Her elder son joined the Marines right out of high school and left for boot camp in October 2012. A member of the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment based in Garden City, Hendriks was deployed to Afghanistan in October and was scheduled to come home within the next two months, according to Arculeo.
Joseph Hendriks, who followed in his brother's footsteps, deployed to Afghanistan more recently — arriving there within the past week, according to Lorraine Caliendo of Carle Place, Arculeo’s sister.
“And now he is painfully but proudly escorting his brother on the long journey home,” Arculeo said. “Not what they or any of us had planned.”
As word of Robert Hendriks' death filtered through Locust Valley, flags were lowered to half-staff at several locations, including the high school and middle school he attended, and at a war memorial near the intersection of Forest Avenue and Weir Lane.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered flags at New York government buildings lowered in honor of Hendriks and Slutman until their burial. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran ordered the same for the county's flags.
The deaths of the service members "are a tragic reminder of the bravery and sacrifice of our service members, who put their lives in harm's way to protect our values and way of life," Cuomo said in a statement.
Robert Hendriks had been awarded the Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Medal and the Armed Forces Reserve Medal.
He was in Afghanistan as part of a NATO troop contingent known as the Georgia Deployment Program, a recurring, six-month rotation between U.S. Marines and the armed forces of the Asian country Georgia, said Maj. Roger Hollenbeck, a Marine Corps spokesman.
“These Marines are honored for their extraordinary bravery and for their direct contribution to the defense of this nation,” Hollenbeck said. The Marines are still investigating the attack and have no details yet, Hollenbeck said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which happened near the Bagram Airfield, and said a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vehicle. The account could not be reconciled with that of U.S. officials.
The fatalities Monday bring to seven the number of U.S. soldiers killed this year in Afghanistan, even as Washington has stepped up efforts to find a way to end the 17-year war, America’s longest. There are about 14,000 U.S. forces in the country supporting Afghan forces as they struggle on two fronts against a resurgent Taliban and the Islamic State affiliate, which has sought to expand there.
Caliendo said her nephew was a sweet, kind and loving young man, and that she'll miss his smile the most. “He was the kind of kid you want to go up and just hug,” she said.
In October, just before Hendriks went to Afghanistan, the family threw a going-away party for him, she said.
“He couldn’t wait to go,” Caliendo said. “And he’s not coming home.”
With Ellen Yan, Beth Holland and AP
Correction: Hendriks joined the service in 2012. A previous version of this story listed an incorrect date.