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Agostino von Hassell:

Marine Abandoned Privileges to Serve

July 2007

When anyone else would have walked with their Columbia University Master's degree straight to high and haughty journalism positions, Agostino von Hassell went to the painted yellow footprints of Marine Corps boot camp.

When any other descendent of more than a thousand years in European nobility would live the cushy New York upper crust lifestyle afforded by the opening of almost any desired door, Agostino von Hassell became a grunt. A boot. Filthy dirty and yelled at. Not a moment of selfish pleasure awaited him. Details aside a successful Corps career ended a couple decades later. Sarcastically he noted, "Truth is I also wanted to get away from New York City."

That took courage. Extraordinary, selfless and patriotic courage.Yet a courage he came by naturally. This he denies; "Courage isn't inherited" he insists. The facts of this case beg differently.

Even amateur historians will recognize his family name as that of a Nazi resistor, Ulrich von Hassell, one of those who boldly conspired to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. Agostino's grandfather paid the ultimate price for that courageous move six weeks later, executed on September 8, 1944 (photo, left).

"The Prussian (and after 1871, German) nobility was characterized for generations by a number of important social markers, including a noble title (usually signified by the "von" in their last names), inherited wealth and privilege, and the possession of land. Men from the nobility typically pursued a career in military or government service, and the most elite positions were traditionally held by nobles," commented German history scholar, author and professor Dr. Elizabeth Janik.

She further explained, "Along with the tradition of public service came a shared outlook and code of ethics. [The von Hassell family] stood out among the elites of German society in the early 20th century. Ulrich von Hassell completed military service in 1903-04 and he later fought (and was seriously wounded) at the Battle of the Marne in the First World War. In 1911 he married Ilse von Tirpitz, daughter of the well-known naval admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (photo, right)."

Of no lesser significance was von Tirpitz' military contribution and authority - easily having the greatest influence on the history of the Imperial German Navy, noted Janik. Given the run German vessels gave Allied Navies during the Second World War, one can quickly understand Tirpitz's place in global Naval annals.

Rather than considering such genealogy as a political passport, von Hassell reflects, "It's an incredible mortgage on my life."

Through his father Wolf von Hassell's direction, America became the homeland for family line. As Wolf commented in an interview with Tekla Szymanski before his 1999 death at his home of many years, New York ("July 20, 1944: The Resistance and the Prussian Nobility"), "I'm German, I'm attached to the country, but I no longer have so many roots there. The roots get weaker over time."

Even simple American traits of generosity befuddle Agostino's native contemporaries. Amused he said, "I tried to tell them how a volunteer fire department works - I got blank stares in Germany."

Forward to midtown Manhattan, May 2007. During lunch at an outdoor cafe, von Hassell is not a well-behaved interview. Tactically cagey, he politely shuts down even the most seasoned interview angle - every strategic query. He doesn't want to talk about himself, and apparently is quite good at doing just that. (That Columbia education at work - in reverse.)

He wants to talk about charities supporting Marines. Charities such as the profoundly successful Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation (MCLEF) (website) and its founder, former Marine Pete Haas (photo, above).

Tens of millions of dollars have been raised over the last couple decades by Haas - one hundred percent of which benefits children of fallen and wounded Marines and law enforcement officers. On that interview day he and von Hassell batted around the EE Patriot savings bond they'd soon deliver to the widow of, 'The Lion of Fallujah,' Maj. Doug Zembiec for their child's education. Savings bonds in five digit amounts. Sometimes six. Not a dime donated goes to expenses, "He has an amazing network of volunteers," von Hassell explains. Volunteers and sponsors.

Although Haas has been the subject of many press stories about his foundation's staggering generosity, its the organization's fiscal reputation from which he takes the most pride. Repeatedly accessed as one of the nation's top charities, Haas explains its due to operating expenses not coming from donations. This gives 100 percent to 'program', in business terms or 100 percent to the children, in von Hassell's terms.

MCLEF Sponsors cover the expense of fundraisers, like one recently held at the New York Athletic Club by the New York City Marines (website).

Such was the case when the Esprit de Corps award was given to Angel Cruz (photo, right). On June 20 this year nearly a hundred attended the Athletic Club event held by New York City Marines, another charitable organization newly forming USMC Public Affairs Maj. James Bell with support from von Hassell and others.

Cruz, shyly made his way to the podium after being honored for a horrific battle in a subway station. A reservist Marine who'd served in Iraq, he found himself being attacked while working a shift as an NYPD cop. Although stabbed in the skull right through into his brain, he was able to pursue and apprehend the attacker till help arrived.

His Corps and Department training - and his devotion to his wife Tiffany and son Isaiah pushed him to fight. He said he thought to himself, "I'm not really thinking right but I have got to get control of this individual."

Recognized and honored repeatedly for his actions, Cruz admitted the Esprit de Corps was different. "This award, it was more related to guys who love and enjoy what they do. It kind of meant more because of the everyone who has served and risked their life for this country. It meant more because it felt like a family to me."

The bottom line was understated yet summed up well by Cruz, wording that perfectly described von Hassell, Haas and the entire NYC Marines mission: "My Corps training made me a better person than I used to be."

Joining von Hassell during the May interview was Anne Marie Kelly. Kelly, a retired NYPD detective is a vice president at von Hassell's international security firm, The Repton Group. An expert in counterterrorism, her passion for Department of Homeland Security missions is complimented by her gracious and warm manner (photo, left).

Her profound respect for von Hassell is due in large part to his silent generosity not only to the above mentioned organizations, but also to individuals. She tells of assistance he gives to young Marines finding themselves in need of some professional direction or encouragement. Those acts go unrevealed yet she knows their borne of von Hassell's patriotism and Marine humility.

That Corps spirit had mattered in her career previously. Her first NYPD partner  was a Marine. Remarking on his professionalism and leadership she said, "He ruined me for anyone else."

Allies in and out of uniform would well describe the work of Maj. Bell (photo, right) and von Hassell. The insignia lapel pins for the NYC Marines were donated by von Hassell - one of many 'small' gestures. However Bell's mission in New York is easily connected to the likes of von Hassell.

"The Commandant is very interested in relations with captains of industry," Bell explains. They want to apply the best of business practices to USMC operations including the four primary instruments of power; diplomacy, information, military and economy. Although one might imagine Bell's job entails mainly dealing with the media, good relations with the likes of the New York City Counsel on Foreign Relations and the Performing Arts Counsel also take the lead in his day to day routine.

So having such an effective relationship with von Hassell easily suits both well - and is an example of the time von Hassell devotes to his community.

"[von Hassell's] grass-roots support, as well as his professional and philanthropic efforts make him available to Marines in the area," Bell remarked. "So many people understand what he does and appreciate what he does that they want to help, too."