Around the Island

Theinert family remembers vets and lends a hand

COURTESY PHOTO U.S. Army First Lt. Joseph Theinert

In March 2010, Army First Lt. Joseph Theinert, 24, went to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, serving his country, which was his life’s goal. He died June 4 of that year disabling the second of two IEDs that threatened his unit. Just before the explosion that killed him, he ordered the 20 men under his command out of the area to safety.

On the eve of the ninth Veterans Day since Joe Theinert’s death, his mother Chrystyna Kestler and brothers William (Billy) and James (Jimbo) Theinert spoke about some of the veterans whose example inspired Joe, and how the family has worked to honor his memory in a way that recognizes his respect for the veterans he knew, and his care for the men who served with him.

Billy, Joe and Jimbo grew up in a family with military service in its DNA, with multiple World War II vets, a grandmother who was in the WAVES and Army service going back generations.

When the boys were young, the family lived with their mother’s father, a Pearl Harbor survivor. Billy, the oldest, remembers his grandfather spoke mainly about how nice it was in Hawaii and not much about December 7. Jimbo, the youngest, remembers the Purple Heart license plate on their grandfather’s car, but not much about how it got there.

Another role model was Mike Skovira, Chrystyna’s uncle, who served in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge, and told Joe about his experiences. Chrystyna said, “Joe sat at Uncle Mike’s knee and he couldn’t get enough of him, he so looked up to him.”

Jimbo said his brother’s desire to hear the war stories of veterans reflected his sincere interest in understanding what it was to be in battle. “He wanted to hear and learn from their experience,” he remembered.

Uncle Mike, who is now 93, was bereft at his nephew’s funeral, telling Chrystyna he feared he had influenced Joe to undertake the mission that ultimately cost him his life.

“I told him that he just added to an already-committed young man,” Chrystyna said. “Joey loved Uncle Mike’s mission — the protector.”

At the Shelter Island School, all three Theinert boys came to know and respect Bob Morgan, a legendary 4th grade teacher and veteran of Vietnam. “He was a commanding presence, a disciplinarian and he cared,” Jimbo said. “Morgan was the guy who always made sure he had a Kleenex or a handkerchief on moving-up day. He was a big softie.”

The boys’ father, James, celebrated each son’s 10th birthday with a “guy’s bonding trip” to a place of the boy’s choosing. Billy opted for camping in Maine, but when Joe turned 10 he asked to visit the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. “I thought it was like going on a school field trip,” Jimbo said. “I wanted to go to a Celtics game in Boston.”

Joe wanted to enlist right out of high school, “but my parents were not supportive of that,” Jimbo said. Instead, he went to Valley Forge, a military school, finished his BA in History at SUNY Albany, joined the New York Army National Guard and volunteered for active duty.

“Joe wanted to protect his guys, to care for them,” said Billy. A year after Joe’s death, his family invited the 30 soldiers of his unit to Shelter Island, shortly after they redeployed home. “It’s not a normal thing, to connect with a Gold Star family,” Jimbo said. “It was difficult for them to do but Shelter Island is a special place.”

Camp Quinipet hosted the retreat and the American Legion stayed open 24 hours a day during the visit, so every soldier had somewhere to go. “It was personally helpful for me and for the entire family,” Jimbo said, adding that it showed them a way to honor Joe’s memory by hosting retreats to help veterans address mental health issues, suicides, PTSD, and to navigate the available resources for dealing with those issues.

On property in New Mexico owned by the family, they created Strongpoint Theinert Ranch, and have hosted close to 50 veterans over six retreats.

This Veterans Day weekend, Strongpoint Theinert and The Nature Conservancy are partnering to hold a veterans’ retreat on Shelter Island at the Manor House that will include the same elements of a ranch retreat. Vets will participate in a service project to benefit the preserve; there will be sessions on wellness, self-care and V.A. resources; and the participation of a mental health professional.

“We always have one really [tough] hike,” said Jimbo. “‘Embrace the suck,’ — it’s a big military phrase. Exertion, but also a good opportunity for discussing things.”

According to Jimbo, there have been more casualties in Joey’s unit stateside due to suicide, drug overdose and drunk driving than died during the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“And the [unit] is not alone” he said. “That’s why we feel so strongly about the work we are trying to do.”