This article first appeared in the Reporter on Memorial Day 2016.
On Friday, June 4, 2010, in the middle of a heat wave with temperatures near or over 90 degrees for three days straight, Chrystyna and Frank Kestler drove from Mattituck to the Inn at Fox Hollow in Woodbury. Frank, a dentist with practices in Mattituck and Shelter Island, had signed up for a conference on dental implants.
During the day, Chrystyna reminisced with Frank about her father, Joseph, who had once worked at Fox Hollow as a bartender. Her son, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Joseph J. Theinert, serving in Afghanistan, was her father’s namesake.
“I told Frank, ‘I have a feeling I’ll hear from Joe today,’” Chrystyna said last week. “It wasn’t a premonition or anything, I was just thinking I’d hear from him.”
Before the day was out she had news about her son, and found herself at a crossroads in her life.
STEAK AND LOBSTER
Chrystyna had last spoken to Joe, also known as Joey, on that Mother’s Day, when he had called from Afghanistan. Since then she had missed calls from him because of reception problems.
She had received one letter from him in the two months he was overseas, but as a friend at the time said, writing was not Joey’s strong suit, which had become the subject of family lore. Chrystyna had asked Joey one day what he had learned after Ms. Corwin’s English class at Shelter Island School. He answered: “I learned not to look at the clock before the class was over.”
But he had been a good student, graduating from Shelter Island High School in 2004, and was a fine athlete, playing lacrosse and basketball and running for the cross-country team. His senior year he was crowned prom king. A graduate of the State University of New York at Albany in 2008, he had been commissioned as a second lieutenant that May after completing the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.
Chrystyna had last seen Joe in March, when she and her sons Jim Theinert, known as Jimbo, and Nick Kestler spent a week with him at Fort Drum in upstate New York, where the 10th Mountain Division is based. Lt. Theinert’s 1st Brigade had received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, so she and her sons went up to see him before he left, staying in quarters reserved for families of military personnel.
“We stopped at Braun’s in Southold to get lobster so I could cook him his favorite meal, steak and lobster,” Chrystyna remembered.
They also had a late celebration of his 24th birthday, Valentine’s Day. “He hated that his birthday fell on that day,” she said with a smile. “You know all those cupids and hearts.”
Chrystyna and Joe’s father, Jim Theinert, were divorced and remained friends. Jim and his wife, Cathy, lived in Sag Harbor and Chrystyna and Frank lived in an apartment in Mattituck over the dental office. The two families were a happy blend, Chrystyna said, with her sons Billy, Joey, Jimbo and Nick a tight group. Joe had given his home address to the army as the Theinert’s home in Sag Harbor.
After the drive home from the conference that hot afternoon, Frank and Chrystyna spent a quiet night, going to bed around 10 p.m. after watching some news on TV.
‘RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME’
About an hour later they were awakened, by Jimbo saying, “Mom, Mom.”
In the living room, Jim Theinert told her, “Joey’s gone.”
“I made a noise,” Chrystyna remembered. Thinking back, her only description of the sound was “a keening,” a wail or lament, typically by women, for the dead. “I felt a piece of my soul ripped from my body.”
She found herself at the crossroads “where there was a big black hole on one side and on the other side was faith, and that I had other people, my other children, who needed me.”
She then did what the women in her family always had done in times of terrible trouble, she said. “I put on a pot of coffee and I began to deal with what was right in front of me.”
She remembered her mother, also named Chrystyna, who grew up in Pennsylvania coal country, a first generation American of Slovakian descent. She had, like many family members and neighbors, gone through the devastation of children dying young.
Army chaplains had gone to Jim and Cathy Theinert’s home earlier that night to notify them of Joey’s death.
Jim asked them to wait, to give him some time so he could personally tell Chrystyna and Frank. He called Jimbo, who was working for South Ferry, and told his son to meet him on the North Haven side, where he told him the news. They, along with Cathy Theinert, then made the trip to Mattituck to tell Chrystyna and Frank.
Lieutenant Theinert had been killed in action in Kandahar Province. The army reported later that Lieutenant Theinert’s platoon had taken hostile fire, which forced them toward an area mined with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Lieutenant Theinert disabled one IED and approached a second when the trigger mechanism sounded. He warned the 20 men in his command to get back, and by doing so, saved their lives when the device exploded and killed him.
“Jim told me that it was good to have wakes and funerals to keep survivors occupied,” Chrystyna said.
And there was plenty to keep them occupied in the days ahead after the news reached them, beginning with the family driving to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to claim Joey’s remains and bring him home to Shelter Island.
DEPTH AND GRACE
At the base, they boarded a bus that took them out on the runway where a plane waited. As she stood on the tarmac, an officer stood next to her. “I remember saying to him, ‘I’m OK, I’m not going to fall down,’” she said.
Another officer explained what would happen, to help cushion the shock, if only a little bit. “He said, ‘You’ll see soldiers and a flag-draped coffin come out. You’ll hear a click as the coffin descends,’” Chrystyna remembered.
Most of the Island turned out to line the roads when Joey returned. The wake was nine hours long, as the community turned out to mourn with the family. “We stood the whole time,” Chrystyna said.
Frank’s father told her some sobering facts, that grief “doesn’t go away. It doesn’t get easier. It just changes,” she said. “The edges blunt a bit.”
Strength giving strength is what she depended on. Chrystyna had been in touch with Jo Ann Lyles of Sag Harbor when her son, Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, 19, a rifleman in the Marine Corps, was killed in action in Iraq in 2008. When Chrystyna had consoled her then, Ms. Lyles said, “I hope you’re never in the position I’m in.”
Now it was her turn to comfort a parent who had lost a son to war. “She is such an example to me,” Chrystyna said. “Such depth and grace.”
Chrystyna is active in the Gold Star Mothers, a support group for military families who have suffered a loved one killed in action, and has established the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund, which helps fund The Strongpoint Theinert Ranch in New Mexico on property donated by Chrystyna and Frank. The ranch is a project for active troops, veterans and their families and Gold Star family members as a place for rest and rehabilitation for a week at no cost.
“If you want to feel better,” Chrystyna said, “do service for others.”
This Memorial Day, Chrystyna said she will remember that her son’s death isn’t just a loss for the family. The community’s continuing response to her and those she loves “taught me the value of this place,” she said. “Shelter Island hasn’t forgotten its loss.”
Valentine’s Day 2016 was Joey Theinert’s 30th birthday.