Locust Valley High School’s fifth annual Flags for Freedom ceremony was marked by the traditional gifting of American flags to each high school senior by members of the Locust Valley and Bayville American Legions. However, the gathering held on May 20 in the school’s auditorium had even more meaning than those held in previous years, as the event honored fallen Marine Sgt. Robert Hendriks, a member of the Locust Valley High School Class of 2012.
Marked by speeches from school officials, veterans and students, the ceremony paid tribute to Sgt. Hendriks’ strong character, good nature and sensitive, kind soul. Senior Caitlin O’Hare joined honored guest U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Cherise S. Herrara in remembering Sgt. Hendriks, based on descriptions from his friends and fellow Marines.
Caitlin said that he was an upstander, always looking to protect his friends and family. “When he put his mind to something, he would do it and do it well, making it no surprise that directly after graduation he enlisted in the United State Marines, sacrificing everything,” she said.
Staff Sgt. Herrara said that even though she did not know Sgt. Hendriks personally, he was her brother. She described his military career, explaining that his occupation was as an infantry machine gunner. While his life may have been taken, she said his legacy cannot be taken away. “People who knew him described as a young, tough man who was both kind and compassionate,” she said.
Flags for Freedom began at Locust Valley High School in 2015 as the brainchild of Operation Democracy President Kay Weninger, who had a vision to enrich the lives of high school students with knowledge of what the American flag means to our country. “I wanted to teach our students who our veterans were, who our active duty soldiers are, and I wanted to educate them about what Veterans Day was and what Memorial Day means,” she said.
Ms. Weninger told the audience of high school seniors and other guests that everything can’t be learned from books. “Today you will feel, and then you will remember this day,” she said. She also thanked the veterans who folded nearly 200 flags for the occasion.
Locust Valley’s Acting Superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso shared personal memories from his time in the Army, recalling bringing the American flag to a mother after escorting her fallen son home to her. He shared what the flag means to him, describing the white stripes as a reminder of the beautiful and pure ideals of our nation, bordered by red to salute those whose blood was shed protecting that flag and the stars which lie in a sea of blue like the heavens in which our heroes, like Sgt. Hendriks, reside.
“They made their sacrifice so as to protect our rights to a life filled with liberty, and enabling us to pursue happiness. They have given you today, they have given you tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, so that the generations that follow could enjoy these liberties,” Dr. Bonuso said.
Remarks from U.S. Marine Major Patrick Kelly and High School Principal Patrick DiClemente also brought meaning and emotion to the ceremony, which concluded with the presentation of the flags.
Members of the Bayville and Locust Valley American Legions lined up on the auditorium stage and handed the folded flags to each of the seniors, shaking their hands as the students thanked them not only for the gift, but for their service to our country.
The Locust Valley Central School District thanks Ms. Weninger, the veterans, the Locust Valley Parents’ Council and all of the guests that helped make the Flags for Freedom ceremony a memorable and unique experience, including the Locust Valley High School Band, which provided a beautiful patriotic musical interlude.