Fallen warrior returns to Shelter Island

06/10/2010 12:00 AM |

A soldier of the 10th Mountain Division bows during a memorial service for Lt. Joseph Theinert, killed on June 4 by an insurgent attack during a routine mission. His death is the company’s first since it arrived in Afghanistan three months ago as part of a troop surge.

“There is nothing glorious about war, but I will go to it to keep the people I love away from it.”

That message from First Lieutenant Joseph J. Theinert was pencilled in the back cover of a picture album found by his older brother Billy on Sunday, the day after his family learned that the 24-year-old Shelter Island soldier had died while saving the lives of his men in Afghanistan. Beneath it, he’d written, “9/11 — never forget.”

Lt. Theinert, the first serviceman from Shelter Island to be killed in combat since the Vietnam War, is the son and stepson of Chrystyna and Frank Kestler of Mattituck and Shelter Island, and James and Cathy Theinert of Sag Harbor.

On Friday, June 4, Lt. Theinert was leading his platoon on a mission in Kandahar Province when the unit came under hostile fire, forcing it toward an area mined with improvised explosive devices. As reported to the family, Lt. Theinert disabled one IED and approached a second one when the trigger mechanism sounded. He warned the 20 men under his command to get back. Thanks to that warning, none were harmed when the device exploded. He was the only soldier killed in the incident and is expected to posthumously receive the Purple Heart.

“He was always thinking of his men,” his stepfather, Frank Kestler, who served in the Army Reserve in Iraq in 2008, said Sunday as friends and neighbors gathered outside his Shelter Island dental office to console the family. They had just returned from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the day before Army soldiers had carried Lt. Theinert’s flag-draped casket off a transport plane. His remains were scheduled to arrive at Gabreski Airport Wednesday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m. A procession escorted by military and police personnel were to bring the Shelter Island native home that evening.

A maritime honor guard of U.S. Coast Guard and other vessels were set to line the ferry channel and escort the Southern Cross, soon to be officially renamed the Lt. Joseph J. Theinert, to South Ferry, where the soldier and his brother Jim worked summers.

Lt. Theinert had been in Afghanistan for a month leading the 2nd Platoon, Bunchee Troop, 1-71 Cavalry Battalion of the 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. He had left Sag Harbor, where he lived with his father, Jim Theinert, for Fort Drum about three months ago.

“What I want for him is for no one to ever forget him — what he did for Shelter Island, what he did for his country,” Mr. Theinert told Shelter Islanders gathered at the American Legion Hall Sunday to plan a funeral that is expected to be attended by as many as 1,000 people.

His mother, Chrystyna Kestler, had received one handwritten letter from her son since his deployment. “This letter means everything to her,” said friend Paula Daniels of Southold. Writing was not his strong suit, as evidenced by a family story: Upon returning from Shelter Island School one day, his mother asked what he had learned in Ms. Corwin’s English class. “I learned not to look at the clock before the class was over,” he answered.

“Knowing he might not return, Joe only looked at the mission ahead of him,” Ms. Daniels said.

His mission in southern Afghanistan was a dangerous one. His deployment was part of a buildup in American forces in Kandahar to counter Taliban insurgents. He was interviewed by the foreign press at the end of May, a few weeks into the 71st Cavalry Battalion’s deployment, and spoke of the difficulty of winning the trust of Afghani villagers. “They’ll eventually come around,” he told a reporter. “They don’t know you. They don’t trust you when you first arrive.”

Lt. Theinert’s Army unit is part of the multinational force supporting the Afghan government in what the U.S. has dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom. The online casualty list for Enduring Freedom showed no deaths in the days immediately prior to the attack that proved fatal for Lt. Theinert. Since Friday, at least 20 NATO soldiers have died. More than 1,100 American servicemen have died in Afghanistan since 2001.

Joseph Theinert graduated from Shelter Island High School in 2004. He had “an impressive athletic career,” the Shelter Island Reporter wrote in its graduation supplement that year. He competed in cross country, lacrosse and basketball, was Student Council president (he and his tall brother, Jim, campaigned on a “Twin Towers” theme) and was crowned king of his senior prom. He graduated from the State University of New York at Albany in the spring of 2008 but it was his commissioning as a second lieutenant in May of that year through SUNY partner Siena College and its Reserve Officer Training Corps program that mattered most to him.

By earning his commission in the Cavalry Battalion, whose dress uniform includes a black Stetson, “Joe got to be everything he wanted to be: Cowboy Joe and GI Joe,” his mother said.

The soldier had a private moment with his brother Jim before leaving for Fort Drum and deployment to Afghanistan, Ms. Kestler recalled. “Jimbo asked Joe, ‘Are you ready for this?’ Joe looked him in the eye and said: ‘Born for it.'”

Ms. Kestler asked that the community remember her son’s comrades. “I have a community of people who are surrounding me. What about his men and fellow officers?” They had to not only see him be killed, but gather his remains and get right back to work, she said. “No one is surrounding them. Joe’s men can’t be forgotten.”

The funeral for Lt. Theinert is set for Friday, June 11, at 1 p.m. at the Shelter Island School. The family has established a website with memorial information at fallensoldiersi.com.

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