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Sgt. Robert Hendriks' father: 'Pain is indescribable' over Afghanistan Russian bounties

Sgt. Robert Hendriks, of Locust Valley, died with

Sgt. Robert Hendriks, of Locust Valley, died with two other Marine reservists when their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb near the main U.S. base in Afghanistan on April 8, 2019. Credit: U.S. Marines

The father of a Locust Valley Marine, killed last year when a car rigged with explosives detonated in Afghanistan, is demanding an investigation into his son's death amid reports that the attack may have been carried out by Taliban fighters in exchange for bounties on U.S. soldiers paid by a Russian military intelligence unit.

Erik Hendriks, 56, of Locust Valley, said he is having difficulty processing allegations that his son, Sgt. Robert Hendriks, along with two other Marines in his elite unit, may have been killed in exchange for cash from the Kremlin. 

"The pain is indescribable," Hendriks, a former NYPD detective, said in an interview. "It certainly is going to reopen a wound. It makes it sound like [Robert's death] was avoidable but so many of these kids have been killed over there."

Hendriks, a Republican who voted for President Donald Trump and continues to support the military effort in Afghanistan, said he wants to avoid the political debate around the bounty allegations.

But he said his oldest son — and all other Gold Star parents mourning the loss of their sons and daughters — deserve answers from the administration.

"We absolutely need an investigation," he said, adding that he has yet to be contacted by the White House or Department of Defense. "And if Robby was standing here right now, he would condone it too."

But the heartbroken father questions whether the individuals responsible for Robert's death will ever be brought to justice.

"I find it hard to believe that we will ever be able to prove that particular incident, or any of the other incidents, was tied to it unless there was a smoking gun," he said. 

Robert's mother, Felicia Arculeo of Freeport, told CNBC Monday that "the parties who are responsible should be held accountable, if that’s even possible.”

Arculeo, a municipal customer service agent for the Village of Freeport, declined to comment Tuesday, adding that the new revelations were too painful to discuss.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that federal investigators are focused on the April 8, 2019 attack on a U.S. convoy that killed Hendriks, 25; Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Delaware, a former FDNY firefighter; and Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania.

The three Marines, who were scheduled to return home only days after their deaths, were killed when a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicle as they returned to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, officials said. 

Three other service members and an Afghan contractor were wounded in the attack, according to the Department of Defense.

Friends and family have said Robert Hendriks seemed destined to serve his country.

During a funeral service last year, they recalled how Robert would play war games with friends in Locust Valley and wanted to follow in the footsteps of an uncle, a cousin and a great-grandfather who had all served in combat. Robert's brother, Joseph, is a fellow Marine who found out about his sibling's death on his first night in Afghanistan, Erik Hendriks said. Joseph later accompanied his brother's coffin back to the United States.

Robert, who trained in boxing and martial arts and had an affection for over-the-top tattoos, signed up for the Marine Corps as a high school senior — so young that his parents needed to sign a waiver for him to enlist, his father said last year. 

“It was his decision, and we didn’t stand in his way," Erik Hendriks said last year.

Robert, who was promoted posthumously from corporal to sergeant, signed with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve infantry battalion based in Garden City.

News reports emerged in recent days that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia was secretly offering bounties in 2019 to members of the Taliban in exchange for the deaths of American servicemen. Russia has denied the allegations.

A total of 20 American troops were killed in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not immediately clear how many deaths are being probed as part of the bounty investigation.

Erik Hendriks compared the Taliban soldiers responsible for his son's death to "mafia hit men," calling them "cowards [who] would never look a Marine in the eye one on one." 

And as facts in the case begin to emerge, Hendriks said he will be closely monitoring how much the administration knew — and what actions they took to prevent the bloodshed.

"If this administration had any idea that these cowards were being paid by any kind of Russian infiltration, and any blood was spilled with that knowledge, I have lost all respect for this administration," he said.

A classified assessment on the bounties was included in at least one of Trump's written daily intelligence briefings in early 2019, sources told The Associated Press. On Monday, the New York Times, citing unnamed administration officials, said the intelligence assessment was included in Trump's daily briefing in February 2019. 

The White House maintains Trump was not personally briefed on the reports because the intelligence assessments had not been fully verified.

"Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an “anonymous source” by the Fake News @nytimes," Trump tweeted Sunday. "Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us."

Trump later tweeted that intelligence agencies do "not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me."

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Newsday on Tuesday that all members of the Senate must receive a classified briefing by Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA. He is also calling for a full investigation of the allegations and a plan for imposing sanctions on Russia.

"Our number one job, independent of politics, is to protect our soldiers when they go overseas and risk their lives for us," said Schumer (D-N.Y.), who said it's too soon to know if the deaths of the three Marines were preventable. "And anytime someone is killed, it's precious to a nation and the family. But the fact that this is a Long Island family … makes it doubly paining."

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