By Mrs Michelle Kennedy (Drum)November 9, 2011
"Having my children was the greatest gift in my life. My biggest fear was having one of my children die before me, and that's exactly what happened."
Chrystyna Kestler stared her worst fear in the eyes when her son 1st Lt. Joseph J. Theinert, who served with 10th Mountain Division (LI), was killed in Afghanistan. She was asleep when she received an unexpected knock on the door.
Her ex-husband, Jim Theinert, was notified first, and he asked the casualty notification officers to let him tell Kestler the devastating news.
"Jim was a city fireman, so when he saw the two uniformed officers come to the door, he knew exactly what happened," she said. "He said to the chaplain, 'give me a 10-minute head start. I can't let Joe's mom just see you guys come to the door.'"
"For a divorced family, there's a lot of love there still," Kestler continued. "Jim and his wife, Kathy, and (our youngest son) Jimbo came over to our house, woke us up and told us the news. It felt like a piece of my soul was ripped out."
The Family waited for the chaplain and casualty notification officer to arrive.
"I had to make a decision right then and there: am I going to keep God in my life or am I going to say there is no God because my son was killed?" Kestler said. "I knew I needed to keep God in my life. I've learned that God always wants us to be there for other people.
"I had no choice but to say 'I have to show up, I have to be present and I have to be there for other people, and if I do that, I'll be taken care of,'" she added.
When the Families heard the news of Theinert's death, they clung to each other for love and support. As news of his death spread around the town of Shelter Island, the tight-knit community began reaching out to the Family to provide more love and support than they could have imagined. In addition, Soldiers and Families from Theinert's unit, 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, began arriving to take care of their own.
Joe Theinert didn't want his mother involved with the B Troop family readiness group, because Kestler said he thought it was for spouses and significant others. She wanted to let Theinert get into the groove of being in a real Army unit, and she would ask to be more involved when he came home.
"I tried to respect him and (thought) 'he's brand new at this and when he comes back, we'll make some adjustments.' You never think this is going to happen," she said.
However, Kestler and her husband Frank, an Army Reserve colonel, quickly learned the Army Family has a long reach.
"I was so surrounded by my hometown community and his unit (Soldiers and spouses from 1-71 Cavalry) who came to Shelter Island and told me 'you'll always be part of 1-71 Cavalry,' and I believed them."
Kestler clung to her Family -- her husband Frank, sons Billy and Jimbo, Frank's biological children Jackie, Frankie and Nick, and Jim and Kathy Theinert; Theinert's friends; the Shelter Island community and the 1-71 Cavalry Soldiers and Family Members who made the 400-mile trek to honor their comrade.
Shelter Island is home to only about 1,300 people, and as the list of people planning to attend the funeral grew, local residents began opening their homes to house the visitors.
"There aren't a lot of hotels on Shelter Island, because it's a resort community," Kestler said. "He was killed on June 4, the height of the summer. Sixty-eight homes were open to family, friends and military -- anyone who needed a room. They didn't have to go to a hotel. They were all housed by families on Shelter Island."
Nearly 3,000 people came to pay their respects to Theinert. Local families and restaurants donated food, and the local American Legion hosted a barbecue. Supplies for the gravesite also were donated.
"Talk about being taken care of," she said. "How can you not come out of that? Yes, you're sad; you're devastated. I don't have my son on this (earth) anymore. There's a big hole in our lives, but how can you not start to heal when you have that kind of response?"
The support didn't stop after the funeral. Kestler's friends helped to extend a garden at Theinert's gravesite; the South Ferry where Theinert used to work named the boat after him; the town has organized memorial sporting events in his name and there's a street on the island named after him.
"It's incredible," Kestler said. "These things -- no, they don't bring Joey back -- but they do bring a small measure of peace."
Kestler also finds support at the Gold Star Mothers chapter on Long Island. Although she's an active member now, she didn't want to join the organization at first.
"(Originally), I didn't want to go to a Gold Star meeting, because I didn't want to be a Gold Star mom," she said. "A very dear friend of mine said 'Just go. Just go to a couple of meetings, and see if it helps. If it doesn't help, you don't ever have to go again.' Under protest, I went to the first meeting."
When she arrived, she found that a lot of the women and men -- the Gold Star Families -- had gone to her son's wake.
"They were right there to catch me and prop me up and laugh with me and cry with me," she said. "We share experiences. We just share stories about our kids. That's wonderful in and of itself. We can use abbreviations and no one has to explain what they are. You're with people who know exactly what you've gone through, so that's helpful."
Giving back on the road to healing
Even though it's been more than a year since her son paid the ultimate sacrifice, Kestler and her Family have remained in contact with 1-71 Cavalry and have attended unit and post events. Most recently, she and her oldest son Billy attended the squadron's Family Spur Ride, which she called an "illuminating event" that she was grateful to participate in.
"I know that Soldiers are amazing people in terms of what they do, but I didn't realize how much inconvenience and discomfort they put up with!" Kestler said. "When I put on the pack that was so heavy that I could barely walk without toppling over, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for what our military is willing to do to protect us."
"(The unit) -- they're saving my life," she continued. "I only feel better when I'm around Soldiers and veterans. I have to be involved with 1-71, because they were there to take care of me."
Kestler remembers her son's dedication.
"Joe so loved his men. All he talked about was 'my guys, my unit,' so they're my Family too," she said. "The 1-71 Cavalry and in particular, Banshee Troop, will always be my Family. They're saving my life and my Family's."
Growing up, Theinert used to love hearing World War II stories about his grandfather, Kestler's father, Joseph Skovira, who served at Pearl Harbor, and his great-uncle Mike Skovira, who was in the Tank Corps under Gen. George S. Patton. Kestler said she believes her uncle's service influenced Theinert's decision to choose armor as his branch.
Kestler remembers Theinert saying "mom, how am I going to survive if I have to write home to one of my guys' parents or wife?"
"I'm so grateful that that wasn't something he had to do," she said. "His previous commanding officer, Capt. Jonathan Villasenor, is like a son to me, because he's the one who had to write that letter and he's the one who had to make that phone call. My heart went out to him."
"(The Soldiers were still) over there. They still had to fight. They still had to do their jobs," Kestler continued. "I had all the support at home -- the whole Family had all the support. I wish I could've just scooped them all up and told them they could all come home."
Because Kestler couldn't bring the troops home, she wanted to organize a welcome home event of her own.
"We wanted to welcome Joey's troops home, because we couldn't welcome him home the way we wanted to," she said.
Kestler told a few people in town that the unit was coming home, and she wanted to have a small event. What was intended as a small get-together became a four-day celebration sponsored by various Shelter Island organizations.
"The (American) Legion was open 24/7 (and provided a dinner); we had a barbecue (and) a ferry cruise for the Soldiers; the town declared it Bravo Troop Day; (and) the Fire Department provided a breakfast the day they left," she said. "It was an amazing weekend."
Kestler and her Family Members haven't stopped there. They recently arranged for a few B Troop Soldiers and their Families to attend a New York Giants preseason game and hang out in the VIP room. When they marched out onto the field, they received a standing ovation.
Kestler and her Family also set up the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund, Inc., which provides five scholarships to local high school and college students and supports the Fisher House and the Wounded Warrior Project.
"We're looking at other veterans' causes, because that's what Joey would've wanted," Kestler explained. "There's a whole web of connections. You never know who you're going to come across, and you never know who you'll be able to help."
"I know Joe wouldn't want me to crawl up in a corner not coming out and not doing anything," she continued. "So this is just a way for me to honor Joey's life, keep Joey's memory alive, honor his service and honor everybody else's service. That way I can be present for my life and the people who love me and who I love."
Kestler said she's grateful that the 10th Mountain Division and 1-71 Cavalry let her son fulfill his dream of serving his country.
"He always wanted to be in the Army, and when he was little he wanted to be a cowboy, too. How wonderful is it that he was assigned (to a cavalry unit)?" she said. "The division let Joey realize his heart's desire and his life's dream. I'll be forever appreciative, particularly to 1-71 Cavalry."
Kestler recalls Theinert's proudest moment was when he earned his Stetson and spurs.
"I remember he was so excited. He brought the Stetson home to show us," she said. "He was so proud. He was so incredibly proud, as he should be -- one percent of the country say 'yes, I will serve my country.'"
While sifting through her son's belongings, she found a photo album where he had written some personal thoughts that prove to her what an amazing man he was.
He wrote, "There is nothing glorious about war, but I will go to it to keep the people I love away from it. It is for them that I am willing to lay down my life. If I should ever fall, please remember me for the man I was, or at least tried to be."