Connecting vets, families, with a community

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

While Monday’s Memorial Day observances on Shelter Island were as stirring and meaningful as ever, there were some familiar faces missing from past years. The Gold Star family of Lt. Joseph Theinert was spending the weekend conducting a leadership retreat for veterans and Shelter Island students at their foundation’s Strongpoint Ranch in New Mexico.

In the wake of Joe Theinert’s death in action in Afghanistan in 2010, his family began to reach out to his comrades, hosting them for a barbecue on Shelter Island at the home of his mother, Chrys Kestler.

In the years since, Ms. Kestler and her family have created a foundation and converted the 1,000 acre family ranch into a place where veterans, active service members and Gold Star Families can come together to share their experiences and move on to the next phase of life in a secure, supportive environment.

The foundation states that no medical or psychiatric services are provided at the ranch, but a certified social worker who is a veteran himself attends every retreat to guide and lead therapeutic discussions.

This past February the ranch hosted their eighth retreat, with all attendees from the 106th Rescue Wing, a unit of the New York Air National Guard, stationed in Westhampton Beach. This was the first retreat in which all attendees came from the same unit and one where all had experienced or shared the same traumatic event. On March 18, 2018, a helicopter carrying seven National Guard members had crashed in western Iraq near the Syrian border. Everyone was killed, including four guardsmen from the 106th.

According to foundation spokesperson Melissa Mundy, the group came to the retreat with a lot to process. A few had witnessed the crash in real time. Others who worked in intelligence had watched a livestream of the crash and in the following weeks re-lived it each time they presented the footage up the chain of command.

The participants found the program so helpful that now they are coming together for a “Strongpoint Theinert Ranch + 106th Reunion” at Mashomack on the second weekend in June. The last reunion retreat at the preserve took place this past November. Ms. Kestler described it as “people sharing strength and hope — there’s an interconnectivity that happens.”

Some veterans described the retreat at Mashomack as giving them a chance to stop, collect their thoughts and as one vet said, “breathe for the first time in years.” One observed that “communication is different among veterans. Being around fellow brothers who have been through what you’ve been through allows everybody to open up.”

“In the years since Joe’s death,” his brother Jimbo Theinert said recently, “we’ve remembered him by working with the military community, helping them re-connect with themselves and their family members.”

The foundation is sponsoring several fundraising events and conducting a capital campaign to build a handicapped accessible bunkhouse at the ranch. So far they’ve raised $225,000 toward a $300,000 goal. The 10th annual Summer Benefit will be held on Thursday, July 25. A lawn party is scheduled at the South Ferry East Landing from 5 to 7 p.m. Then a sunset cruise sets out aboard the M/V Lt. Joe Theinert, named in honor of the late soldier, who had worked for South Ferry.

An annual golf tournament kicks off on Monday, September 9, 2019 at Pine Hollow Country Club in East Norwich. For information on tickets for these events and sponsorships, visit JJTMF.org.

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