Five boulders stand outside the American Legion Hall on Shelter Island with plaques bearing the names of hometown soldiers, including 11 who died during conflicts in the 20th century.
When 24-year-old 1st Lt. Lieutenant Joseph Theinert died June 4, 2010, in Afghanistan, while disabling the second of two improvised bombs that threatened his men, he joined the ranks of local heroes who gave their lives to protect and defend.
In the collective memory of a small town, a soldier who makes the ultimate sacrifice is never forgotten. Joe joined Jimmy Wilson, Shelter Island Class of ’62, killed in Vietnam, and the seven fallen heroes from World War II; men who came from the Island and died in America’s wars. But Joe Theinert was a man, not a symbol. He was a son, a brother, a neighbor, someone his friends trusted, someone who left his dirty clothes all over the house, someone you’d look to in an emergency. And like the soldiers who died before him in other American wars, he left a legacy on the Island that transcends his death.
Joe was born in Hempstead, delivered at home by his grandmother. His parents, Chrystyna and James Theinert, brought him into a family with a long tradition of service and, as a child, when he played, it was with a military precision. His brother James remembers the two of them imitating the low crawl of a soldier when 10-year-old Joe yelled at him, “Keep your butt down; you’re going to get shot.”
For a time, the family lived with Chrystyna’s father, a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and although Joe’s older brother, William, didn’t remember much talk about his service, the Purple Heart license plate on his grandfather’s car said it all.
Joe was 4 months old when the family moved to Shelter Island. Mallory Wissemann Clark met Joe in nursery school, and they grew up in a tight circle of friends who were more like family. At 16, Joe took her on her first date. This milestone was arranged once Joe got his driver’s license, and showed up with his friend John Goodleaf at the local ice cream shop where Mallory was working. Mallory was in mid-scoop when John announced, “I think we are going to go out on a date. Joe and I are going to take you and Kim to Appleby’s.” Mallory informed Kimberley Atkins of the proposed date and a few days later the four rode to Riverhead — willing, but with little idea of how this dating thing was supposed to work.
Joe was a diligent, but not stellar, student at the Shelter Island school. History was an exception. He was fascinated with the study of armed conflict and well versed in the history of battles and wars. His father celebrated each son’s 10th birthday with a trip to a place of the boy’s choosing. Older brother William opted for camping in Maine, but when Joe turned 10 he asked to visit the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, a choice that struck his brother James as the equivalent of a school field trip.
Sean Clark was a few years younger than Joe, and their friendship was based on a shared calling to military service. Joe was headed for the Army and Sean dreamed of serving in the Navy, but in all the ways that matter, they saw eye to eye. They both loved basketball, and played for Shelter Island High School’s varsity team, but Joe was not a star. “We used to call it the Theinert hands,” said Sean. “You’d pass him the ball and usually he did not catch it.”
Joe was a man of few words, an observer who could tell when somebody was having a hard time. Mallory recalled a post–high school get-together at her house, not long after her mother and stepfather had separated. While everyone was laughing and having a good time, Joe noticed that Mallory’s mother had gone into the kitchen, and he followed to make sure she was OK.
“He was so quiet, he never made a fuss or brought attention to himself,” said Mallory. “He had a lot of empathy.” Joe’s own parents had split up during his school years, so he had some idea of the strain that separation can cause in a family.
“Joe was the big brother to a lot of people,” said Sean. “If you were going off the path, he was quick to use his moral compass to get you back on the right track. He always had an unwavering belief of what was right and he always acted on it.”
In high school, Joe’s instincts made him the self-designated escort, driver and security officer for his large circle of friends, whether they wanted protecting or not. “Parents definitely considered Joe more reliable than other kids, and they loved him,” said Mallory. “If Joe was going, my parents would always let me go.”
After graduation, Joe wanted to enlist right away but his parents insisted on college first. He graduated from a two-year program at Valley Forge Military College in Pennsylvania, joined his brother James at SUNY/Albany and impressed everyone with his ability to balance partying with military discipline — most notably when he disappeared on a raucous evening to get some sleep before early-morning training exercises. Joe graduated in 2009, enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, commanding a platoon.
After Joe’s parents split up and his father moved to Sag Harbor, his mom married Frank Kestler. Chrystyna Kestler got to see her son with his men and witness the pride he took in his command. “I saw guys older than him salute him,” said Chrystyna, “[so proud] the buttons could have popped off his uniform.”
Just as Joe had always looked out for his friends growing up, as a platoon commander he took his responsibility for his soldiers very seriously. He agonized over the appropriate punishment for one of his men. “Joe was torn because the guy was a top performer, a great soldier, but he’d been involved in a serious DUI,” said Sean Clark. “Joe was trying to figure out the correct punishment. In the end, he recommended for separation [dismissal] which is by the book, but I know it weighed on him.”
In June 2010, Mallory was home on Shelter Island when word came of Joe’s death. It was a dark time, and she was grateful to be near people who knew and loved him. Mallory was looking for work, and soon she was helping out at the dental office that Chrystyna and Frank Kestler ran on the Island. “It was like therapy for us,” said Mallory. “To have that connection; I think we needed it.”
Mallory and Sean also reconnected after Joe’s death. “Joe brought us together,” said Mallory. That’s when we started dating.”
Sean and Mallory married, and now have two sons: Colton, born in 2014, and Chase, born in 2017. Sean graduated from the Naval Academy in 2011, the year after Joe died. He served in Japan with the Marines, and has now completed his service and joined Mallory and their boys. “The plan is to bring them up on Shelter Island,” said Mallory. “I don’t know many people who have friends that are like family. I want that for my kids.”
For many of Joe’s friends and family, his death is still too painful to contemplate. The Strongpoint Theinert Ranch, established by his family in New Mexico, has honored his legacy by hosting almost 50 veterans over six retreats. The foundation also sponsors local veterans’ retreats, including one this fall on Shelter Island, co-sponsored and hosted by The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve.
Remembering the man Joe was, and the care for others that he stood for, helps those who knew him make sense of their loss. “I think that’s the most impressive thing about Joe,” Sean said, “the impact he had, and continues to have.”