ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO | The late Lt. Joe Theinert’s comrades from his Air Cavalry Army troop, aboard the South Ferry boat named for him last year, on their way to Shelter Island for a four-day visit as ferry company President Cliff Clark addresses the men.
Lt. Joe Theinert’s Banshee Troop convoy of private cars arrived at the South Ferry terminal in North Haven from Fort Drum last Thursday afternoon, May 19, escorted by Patriot Guard motorcycle riders. As they boarded the Lt. Joe Theinert ferry, they were warmly welcomed by South Ferry President Cliff Clark.
Dozens of members of the troop, who last saw Lt. Theinert one year ago next week in Afghanistan, where he was killed warning them to stay clear of a roadside bomb, came from all over the U.S. and had never been to Shelter Island. Their visit, arranged by Lt. Theinert’s mother, Chrystyna Kestler, with help from many Islanders, including American Legion Post 281’s Matt Rohde, was meant to be a time of healing for all.
“It is such a pleasure to do this,” said Mr. Clark as the troops, wearing the dress uniform complete with the Stetson hats and silver spurs of the First Cavalry Division, boarded the ferry. “It has helped the town already,” he said.
An American Legion Color Guard was on board to welcome the troops as they boarded. Mr. Clark elaborated, “We’re proud to have them here. It’s a proud moment for Shelter Island, although it comes at such a great price … These guys made it home, and we have no idea what they’ve just been through.”
One of the Patriot Guard riders who escorted the troops from upstate Fort Drum, John Heskin, said he had an idea of what they had just been through. “I rode 400 miles on my bike because every soldier deserves this welcome. When I served in Vietnam, we did not get this response when we came home.”
Banshee Trooper Sgt. Brian Baumgardner, 25, from Kentucky was dazzled by the community welcome. “When I returned home, my mom, dad, brother and sister were there. There are hundreds of people here. It’s crazy,” he said.
Sgt. Baumgardner was looking forward to spending time here with the troop, he said, because about 75 percent of the men would soon be relocating or leaving the military.
Flags and crowds lined the streets to welcome the Banshee Troop with signs and cheers. Troop Captain Jonathan Villasenor, 37, of Fairfax, Virginia, spoke at the American Legion, where there was a reception to which the public was invited. “We’re not used to fanfare.” he said. “We’ve just gotten into friendly territory. There are a lot of emotions. We are a little overwhelmed.”
He continued, “You knew Joe, and you were probably touched by that guy, and you are going to be affected the rest of your life … We were happy to see a sign that said ‘Welcome Home.’ We’re going to take it as this is our home.”
Susan Dingle, a friend of Lt. Theinert’s mother, welcomed the troop on behalf of the Shelter Island community with a poem she had written. “Welcome to Joey’s Heaven, where we are all connected and belonging, where we listen as we welcome every soldier home,” she read. “Thank you for your sacrifice and with all of our broken hearts, we honor who you are, and where you’ve been.” Ms. Dingle recalled an event a few years back, when television crews and newspapers reported on Shelter Island having the only school still open during a snowstorm. “The newspapers called this place ‘The Little Island That Could.’ There is no doubt Shelter Island has lived up to this once again.”
ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO | Lt. Mike Ireland, who took over as the troop’s lieutenant after Joe Theinert’s death in Afghanistan, kneels at his grave at Our Lady of the Isle Church
On Friday, the Banshee Troop was invited to attend Mass at Our Lady of the Isle Church, Lt. Theinert’s church, and gather afterwards, privately, at his grave, where Lt. Mike Ireland, who took over as the troop’s lieutenant after Joey’s death in Afghanistan, knelt and placed his own silver spurs on the grave. These spurs will be secured in a clear display box for protected viewing.
Later they took the ferry to Lt. Theinert’s other hometown, Sag Harbor, where his father James lives, and the men were welcomed at the Legion with lunch.
On Saturday afternoon, the Pipes and Drums of the New York City Police Department’s Emerald Society played at a picnic for everyone at the Kestler family’s Westmoreland Farm. “It is a thrill and an honor to come here,” said Society member Dan Danaher, who had come from Eastchester, New York. Also in attendance were friends and family, including Sam and Marion Curko, 40-year residents of the Island.
“Joe was like family,” said Mr. Curko. “This town is doing the right thing.” Mr. Curko said that, to him, loyalty is the most important thing he learned as a coach, teammate, husband and family member. As he enjoyed his meal, he said, “You can’t eat a lobster in a better place, for a better reason.”
Following the farm gathering, the troop, close friends and family were welcomed aboard South Ferry’s Lt. Joe Theinert for a cruise around the Island with dinner and live music. The Fire Department’s rescue boat sprayed its firehose to honor the troop as the guests arrived. Shelter Island’s John “Woody” Kneeland of the local band, The Realm, toasted Lt. Theinert before beginning the non-stop set: “This gig is for you, Joe,” he said.
The band brought the crowd to its feet. Banshee Trooper PV2 Logan Baragar recited a poem that he wrote about Joe: “I will clearly see your brightly shining fire, it is everywhere I go,” he said. “I see the footprints that are right by me, I know it is you, helping keep us free.”
Other troop members had some microphone time as well, singing along with the band. Mr. Kneeland announced the raffle winners of various prizes donated by local businesses to benefit the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund. There was also a 50/50 raffle to benefit the troop, which the group decided in a vote to donate to the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund.
Throughout the weekend, approximately $1,600 was raised for the fund to benefit a Shelter Island student, and other local community scholarships and military charities. The 501(c) 3 status is in process, and Ms. Kestler said she looked forward to continued donations to help the various charities. “Joey would have liked that,” she said. According to Laura Ogar Marcello, who volunteered to help with the raffle, the figure does not yet include the tips that American Legion bartenders donated throughout the weekend.
The most common word among visiting troop members was “overwhelmed.”
“It was Shelter Island at its finest” according to Christine Gross, the Island’s school crossing guard who helped organize the troop’s visit. “Everyone came together to show the troops a great time,” she said.
Ms. Gross, Matt Rohde, Bill Clark and many other individuals and organizations in the community worked to make the visiting troop members feel welcome. Asked if the troop’s visit helped her, Mrs. Kestler said, “Did it help me? Did it ever. It also helped all of the young people on the Island.” All the smiles and the crowds at the weekend’s events seemed to prove her point, with stories and cell phone numbers exchanged, Facebook friending, hugs and picture taking.
The troop left Sunday morning after a breakfast at the Center firehouse. When they were gone, one resident, Cat Brigham, asked, “Is there such a thing as Banshee Troop withdrawal?”
Mrs. Kestler commented, “I’m so filled up, I feel like I have 30 sons, I didn’t want them to leave.” Before departing, the men were offered “to-go” containers for their ride, plants from Joe’s grave to take with them, and plenty of invitations to return. They promised they would, and are already making plans. Joey probably would have liked that, too.