Christopher Tasso said when he first saw his friend Robert Hendriks’s casket at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware he felt like he was sleepwalking. The memories of him and Hendriks growing up together in Locust Valley still felt too close for the truth to be real.
On April 8, Hendriks, a Marine Reservist, was killed in Afghanistan with two other reservists, Staff Sgt. Christopher K.A. Slutman and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, after their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb.
Hendriks, who was born in Glen Cove, was connected in a variety of ways to the North Shore. His father, Erik Hendriks, lives in Glenwood Landing and his immediate family lives in Glen Head. The family moved to Locust Valley when Robert was two. He was living in an apartment in Oyster Bay before he left for Afghanistan.
Tasso addressed over 300 guests at a memorial fundraiser held in Hendriks’s honor at the Oyster Bay Brewing Company Tuesday night. Tasso also said that in the crowd of servicemen that flooded the tarmac in Delaware, he could see the face of his dear friend on some of the young marines in the distance.
Residents, community members, veterans and elected officials came together to raise money for a memorial scholarship fund dedicated in Hendriks’s memory at Locust Valley High School, his alma mater. The United States Marine Sgt. Robert A. Hendriks Memorial Scholarship will be given to a senior who exemplifies some of the same traits that Hendriks displayed as a student.
Halfway through the night, Nassau County Legislator Josh Lafazan, who hosted the fundraiser, reported that they already raised $20,000 for the scholarship fund. Ryan Schlotter, one of the co-owners of the brewery, then told him that the business would be donating the proceeds from the cash bar to the fund, as well, bringing the total to $25,000. By the end of the night, the event had raised $30,000.
Lafazan worked with local business owners to devise a fundraiser that would immortalize Hendriks’s legacy. As he looked out on the brewery, which was packed to capacity, he said he was overwhelmed. “This is a community that is generous beyond measure,” he said, “and the fact that they came out to support Robert, we’re keeping his memory alive.”
Milling about the brewery were friends of Hendriks and his family. They greeted each other with “good to see yous” and caught up over a pint. Many of them wore screen-printed t-shirts and hoodies bearing Hendriks’ portrait. Written on the backs of the shirt was a quote: “We have good Corporals and good Sergeants, and those are far more important than good Generals.”
Also in attendance were veterans from past and present wars. Legionnaires from Locust Valley, Bayville and Oyster Bay stood alongside servicemen who had fought in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, a sight best described as “moving beyond measure,” Lafazan said.
Vinnie Libertini, commander of the Robert H. Spittle Post 1285 in Bayville, said he attended as a way to thank Hendriks for his service, and reassure people that he would not be forgotten. “There’s one thing all of us did that a lot of people in this country didn’t do,” he said of his fellow veterans. “We took one step forward and said, ‘We will. We’ll do whatever our country asks us to do.’ To honor this young man and the sacrifice he made for all of us is absolutely outstanding.”
Representatives from the Nassau County PBA and Building Homes for Heroes each donated a $1,000 check to the scholarship fund. Veterans from the Syosset VFW Post 6394 presented Hendriks’s family with a memorial commendation from the commander-in-chief of the national Veterans of Foreign Wars, decrying that the marine’s “devotion to duty, courage and patriotism has been so boldly evidenced by selfless service and supreme sacrifice.”
Tasso said the community’s support for his fallen friend is evidence that he did not die in vain, that his sacrifice left a legacy to aspire to. “Words like honor and valor have only continued to exist because of individuals like Rob who truly embodied what they mean,” he said. “In your absence we’ll be able to truly become closer to who you are and what you epitomize. That means digging deep, as Rob did, when times [are] hard, pushing forward and being strong even when we feel like we don’t have it in us.”
Hendriks’ friend Erik Eckes also spoke, comparing the marine to Icarus, who strived to surpass the sky, the sun and the stars, “but always pushing others for their own motivation,” he said. “Hendriks was more than a last name; Hendriks was a force of protection and love.”
Sea Cliff resident Deanna Spinelli, Hendriks’s cousin, read a letter of thanks on behalf of his mother, Felicia, father, Erik, and brother, Joseph, who is also a Marine. “Although this journey has been painful, through our tears we have seen the very best of all humankind,” Spinelli said. “The generosity and unselfish determination by so many to honor Robby in as many ways as possible has humbled us beyond words. Our hometown of Locust Valley will be part of Robby’s legacy forever.”