Dr. Frank Kestler made it home in time for Thanksgiving.
The dentist, who maintains practices on Shelter Island and in Mattituck, had been deployed in Afghanistan for only a few months, but what he experienced is lifetimes removed from the reality he knew when he left Shelter Island.
“From day one, I knew I was in a war zone,” Dr. Kestler said. Unlike two previous deployments in Iraq as a National Guardsman, he was down range nearer to the fighting, and integrally involved with Afghani troops and civilians, unlike what he had experienced in his previous deployments.
There was no time for reflection or getting used to a new environment.The August day he arrived at the small medical unit in Afghanistan, about six miles from the Pakistani border, he was immediately pressed into duty helping carry gurneys loaded with injured troops from evacuation planes into the hospital. Time flew. By day’s end, Dr. Kestler looked down to see his boots spattered with the blood of soldiers.
Not that the horrors of war hadn’t touched Dr. Kestler before his arrival — he’s the stepfather of 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert, who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2010 while working to disable improvised explosive devices.
The Afghanistan post where Dr. Kestler served functioned both as hospital and morgue for those who died from their wounds. “It brought back a lot of memories of Joey,” he said. “I think I prayed more on this deployment.” He recalled many moments of falling to his knees with chaplains and other service personnel to pray for the troops brought to his post.
“Because we had lost Joe, I think I was ready mentally for what I faced,” he said.
While Dr. Kestler’s main responsibility in Afghanistan was to provide emergency dental treatment to U.S. and Afghani troops, civilians and detainees, as well as contractors, he also assisted in surgeries and trained combat medics in administering Novocaine and handling emergency extractions. The training he gave was as important as the procedures he handled himself, since he was the only dentist supporting 22 combat posts, he said.
“It was rewarding to work on our servicemen and women,” Dr. Kestler said.
SAFE AND SOUND
He landed at MacArthur Airport last Thursday afternoon and was welcomed home with a party at American Legion’s Mitchell Post 281 after the South Ferry carried him back to the Island.
While he still has a few years left of service as a reservist, Dr. Kestler hopes this will be his last deployment to a war zone.
“My better half told me the third [deployment] is the last one,” he said referring to his wife Chrystyna Kestler, Joe Theinert’s mother.
When people see troops deployed, they don’t think about the process the family has to undergo: updating a will; putting a durable power of attorney into place so a family member can act in the family’s interests during the time he’s gone; and handling credit cards and various accounts, Ms. Kestler said.
Then there’s the anxiety during the deployment. One thing the Kestlers learned in previous deployments is they couldn’t schedule times to Skype or email one another because there were times when all communications shut down.
“If you don’t get an email for a couple of days, you wonder what’s going on,” Ms. Kestler said. But having dealt with her son’s death, she learned that the Pentagon is very quick to send clergy to the house after a death. So she dealt better with the silences during her husband’s absence this time.
WAR AND CONSEQUENCES
Asked about the controversy surrounding the continued war in Afghanistan — America’s longest, now in its 11th year — Dr. Kestler said he’d seen some positive results in Afghanistan. The literacy rate, while still low, has tripled from the 6 percent it was under the Taliban. And Afghani women are also serving beside the men in the Army, he said.
A lot of Afghanis were grateful for American presence in their country, but there were also incidences of rock throwing, primarily involving Afghani children, Dr. Kestler said.
“It was a little disconcerting,” he said. U.S. soldiers told him they were used to it.
There remain “green-on-blue” incidents of Afghani military troops killing U.S. troops, but Dr. Kestler speculated it’s not the Taliban leading the attacks. Instead, he thinks it’s the result of Afghani soldiers who don’t know how to handle the emotions of war. They can be spooked by any number of circumstances and go off with murderous responses.
“We just had to remain alert,” Dr. Kestler said. That meant no bicycling around the base or strolling away from the hospital except when guided, and always knowing where bunkers were to provide protection from incoming shells. On base, he slept in quarters with Afghani troops and interacted with them daily. But he also found himself sleeping for only about four hours at a time and carrying a 9mm pistol to protect himself. By the time he hit Kuwait on his trip home and was relieved of the pistol, he admitted he initially felt “naked” without it.
Dr. Kestler’s advice to those who will follow him into the region: It’s important for those deploying to Afghanistan to make an effort to learn about the ancient culture and language of the Pashtun people.
Sections of the country are becoming models for a brighter future while other areas are “like the Wild West,” Dr. Kestler said.
“Time will tell,” he said about the value of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.