By Claire Walla
The number of American Flags last weekend seemed numerous enough to carpet the bay. Red, white and blue rectangles, some small enough to fit in a flower box, one so large it was dangled above the Shelter Island Ferry by the fire department’s aerial ladder, plastered the landscape Thursday, May 19, as residents of Sag Harbor and Shelter Island lined the roadways to greet members of Army Banshee Troop, 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Battalion of the 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.
Twenty-five soldiers — wearing stoic faces and their signature Stetson hats — were driven down Route 27 and Main Street, Sag Harbor escorted by a police-car cavalcade that eventually brought the boys to Shelter Island. There, the troop spent the weekend in honor of one of their own: First Lieutenant Joseph Theinert, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan one year ago, June 4, 2010.
Theinert’s mother, Chrystyna Kestler, with help from Theinert’s father, Jim, organized the get-together, arranging for housing and even childcare for the troops and their families so that they could spend the weekend before Memorial Day here, in memory of their son.
“He touched all of us, you know? And him passing probably affected all of us more than we would like to think it did, because we had a mission to accomplish while we were there [in Afghanistan],” said commanding officer Jonathan Villasenor.
Of the entire 90-person Banshee Troop, Villasenor and about 32 members (or former members) ultimately ended up making the trip to the East End.
“The people that knew Joe are here,” said Villasenor. “It helps their mourning, or grieving, to think about Joe without the Afghanistan context.”
On Friday, just after a buffet-style lunch topped with a heavily frosted cake and a helicopter fly-by at the American Legion in Sag Harbor, many members of Banshee Troop also took time to pay tribute to Sag Harbor’s Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in April 2008 at the age of 19.
Wandering the village with coupons for free ice cream and free cups of coffee, a small group of men in Stetsons eventually crept beneath the Sag Harbor bridge named in Jordan’s honor to gaze at the mural — an eagle, flanked by two images of Captain America — which had been painted for the fallen marine.
“This place says a lot about Jordan,” Villasenor later said. “And it says a lot about this community.”
The presence of Banshee Troop prompted members of these relatively small communities on the East End of Long Island to come together to remember the two soldiers recently lost, and — on the brink of Memorial Day — to recognize those who still fight.
And for those soldiers who left their stations at Fort Drum in Upstate New York last week to come here, while Memorial Day is a time to mourn the loss of a friend, it’s also a time to celebrate their memories.
“If Joe wasn’t killed, he would have loved to have come down and had a party with them,” said Jim Theinert with a smile.
Celebrating His Memory
On Saturday, hundreds of people from the community-at-large came out to a picnic organized by Chrystyna Kestler on her farm off Westmoreland Road on Shelter Island.
Beneath the light shade of a few trees scattered about the banks of a large inlet, guests unleashed previously well-composed reserves of energy while congregating between folding tables piled high with lobsters, burgers and innumerable side dishes, across from a dinghy-sized bucket of soft drinks and, yes, another large cake.
Most of the soldiers said they were taken aback by the efforts put forth on their behalf.
“This is amazing. I’ve been in the Army five years and I’ve never, ever had a welcoming somewhere like this,” said Mitchel Stallings, a polite, soft-spoken sergeant from just outside Eugene, Oregon.
His eyebrows lifted as he recalled the fire engines that greeted the parade of vehicles along Route 27, and the crowds of people waving from the sides of the road, as well as those who have come up to thank the soldiers for their service.
“It blows my mind.”
“I’m really not used to it, so I don’t really know how to react to it. Like, everybody’s talking to me and shaking my hand and saying ‘Thank you,’” explained Sgt. Brian Baumgardner, who spoke with a deep voice and a Kentucky twang. I don’t know what to say … ‘Ok, you’re welcome?’”
He light-heartedly shrugged.
Baumgardner said he was extremely grateful for all the support, and continued, “Honestly, I just do what I do because I love it. I love my job. I love serving my country and that’s pretty much it.”
“We were expecting something different, something somber,” added Staff Sgt. Kevin Proctor, originally from Tennessee, who has served in the armed forces for eight years now. “But it’s been the complete opposite. It’s like a family reunion, almost.”
Commander Villasenor added that had he known this trip would turn out like this, he said he would have brought the entire troop down to the East End.
Though each soldier enlisted in the armed services for their own reasons — born into a military family, seeking a lifestyle change, or simply because “G.I. Joe got me hooked” — several members of Banshee Troop explained that the service caused the group to forge a deep bond.
“When you live together for a year and you go through the stuff that we go through, it does become like a brotherhood,” Sgt. Proctor continued. “Each one of these guys is a brother to me.”
In this way, he added this trip to Sag Harbor and Shelter Island resonated with him, as it has for most of the troop, because it’s brought some closure to the sudden loss of a friend.
“This explains a lot. [Joey] was just a nice guy, so easy to get along with, and this is why,” he said. “Everybody’s basically family on this island.”
The troop had originally planned to come to the area on Memorial Day weekend, but logistics caused the trip to take place a week earlier. When asked what Memorial Day means to them, answers tended to vary.
Some were a little flummoxed.
“We don’t really think about it,” Captain Dylan Mixson said after a brief pause. “We’re just working a job just like any red-blooded American.”
Others spoke of personal significance.
“My whole family, we’re military,” said Sgt. Stallings. “My parents were in the Navy, my grandfather was a Green Beret back in Vietnam. I come from a long line of military people, so it’s kind of like a family day for us. We just get together and give thanks for still being around.”
But for Commander Villasenor, Memorial Day touches on something much greater.
“A lot of people know somebody, or they know a family with a deployed soldier, but nothing really hits home,” he said. “Sag Harbor and Shelter Island have experienced that loss — and that’s huge. It was devastating to this community, because it makes everything that’s going on [with the war] a reality.”
“It’s a little different for me, because the list of people that I know that have been killed is pretty significant now,” he continued. “But, I think that’s what Memorial Day is for: to take a moment out of your day, out of your life, so that you can remember a little bit.”