Magdalena resort to provide services for veterans, families

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It’s a very long way – geographically, historically and socioeconomically – from the tiny enclave of Shelter Island, N.Y., to the isolated, piñon-studded hills of Magdalena, N.M.

But a makeshift bomb buried beside a dirt wall in Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province could one day bring these diverse communities a little closer together in honor of the 24-year-old soldier killed by that bomb – 1st Lt. Joseph J. Theinert.

Theinert’s mother and stepfather, Chrystyna “Chrys” Kestler and Col. Frank A. Kestler, plan on turning their 1,100-acre ranch near Magdalena into a no-fee resort for veterans and their families recovering from the rigors and costs of war.

“Joe’s life was wrapped up with his men and their families,” Chrys said. “… He laid down his life for his men.

“Now that we’ve lost Joe, the family and I want to continue Joe’s mission, which is to be ever concerned with our soldiers, Marines, airmen and Coast Guard and their families.”

“Joey” Theinert grew up on New York’s Long Island and visited New Mexico only once, the Kestlers said during a December interview in Albuquerque’s Old Town, where they were visiting friends, while en route to the Magdalena ranch.

The couple spends about 12 weeks a year at the ranch, Chrys Kestler said, and the remainder in New York, where her husband has a thriving dental practice. They bought about 600 acres of the ranch in 2007, and purchased about 500 adjacent acres a few years later.

At the back of the couple’s minds was Joe – an avid hunter and outdoorsman who, along with other members of the blended Theinert and Kestler families, would no doubt find the ranch to be a welcome respite from their everyday lives.

Frank Kestler’s first encounters with the Land of Enchantment came while he was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso.

“I started driving into New Mexico during my weekends off, and I just fell in love with the Southwest and its wide open spaces,” he said.

Chrys Kestler came out in 2007, and the couple decided to buy the Magdalena property.

“We heard there was prized elk hunting out here, and Joey was our hunter,” Chrys Kestler said. “Frank would often take him hunting, and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if Frank and Joe could come out here to hunt?’”

In February 2008, Joe visited the property with Frank and Chrys, and the trio spent time hiking the ranch property and determining its boundaries.

“It was a really wonderful trip,” Chrys said. “It happened to be his birthday, and the Magdalena cafe baked him a birthday cake. Everyone in the cafe sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. … It was his one and only trip here.”

Joe Theinert was born on Valentine’s Day 1984, the middle son of James and Chrys Theinert. Like older brother Billy and younger brother Jimbo, Joe grew up on the eastern end of Long Island, spending his summers playing army and, when he got older, working on a ferry boat.

“I could have told you at age 3 that the military was where Joey was going,” Chrys said. “When your kid comes to you in grade school and starts telling you about D-Day … you sort of know where they’re headed.”

Joe, a fun-loving athlete who excelled at basketball and lacrosse, graduated from Shelter Island High School in 2004, then enrolled at Valley Forge Military Academy and College. He received a degree in history from the State University of New York at Albany in 2008 and completed the ROTC program at Siena College.

He joined the New York National Guard, where he was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y.

His unit deployed to Afghanistan in May 2010. It was Joe’s first deployment to the Middle East.

On June 4, 2010, during a dismounted patrol at Hondu Kalacheh, Afghanistan, Joe’s unit was attacked by insurgents armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Though initial reports indicated that he died disarming an improvised explosive device, his parents say the hidden bomb exploded as Joe and his unit sought cover behind a mud wall.

Joe, the last to try to go over the wall, was killed by the blast. The rest of his platoon survived.

“He died doing just what he wanted to do,” Chrys Kestler said. “How many people can say that?”

Joe’s stepfather, who had returned from Afghanistan two weeks before the interview in Old Town, said he had an opportunity to meet with Joe’s executive officer and one of his noncommissioned officers who were with his son the day he died.

“It was so good for me to sit down and talk to them,” Frank Kestler said, noting that he found it comforting to get a firsthand account of Joe’s death. The retelling of the event, he said, seemed to have helped the two soldiers as well.

On June 8, 2010, the townspeople of Sag Harbor lined the streets as the hearse bearing Joe Theinert’s body was brought home. He is buried at Our Lady of the Isle Roman Catholic cemetery on Shelter Island.

“You lose a son – or any child – and your whole world is shattered,” Chrys Kestler said. “A part of your soul is ripped out.”

Chrys, a longtime member of the Blue Star Mothers, said recovering from such devastation requires time and support. Lots of support.

“I’ve learned throughout my life to look to other people who have gone through what you’ve gone through, and to stick close to the people who seem to be recovering from that experience the way you would like to,” she said.

During a tour of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after Joe’s death, Chrys and Frank met a man who told him about an adaptive hunting program for amputees.

“A light bulb went off, and I said, ‘Frank, that’s something we could do out in New Mexico,’ ” Chrys said. That conversation was the genesis of Strongpoint Theinert Ranch – a facility where veterans and their families could meet to share, heal and find a way forward in the aftermath of war. Strongpoint, Chrys noted, is the Marine term for a forward operating base.

The couple envisions a secluded, 14,000-square-foot facility that can accommodate about 35 people for free, weeklong stays. They propose a ranch with 16 rooms, a staffed kitchen, dining room, exercise room, 24/7 emergency care, chapel, stables and outdoor gathering places.

“There’s great healing in sharing combined experiences,” Chrys Kestler said. “So if you have a week where you host, say combat-wounded veterans, the guys will be talking among themselves and the families will wind up talking with the other families.”

Such interactions, she said, are an important step in healing and moving on with life.

In keeping with Joe’s love of hunting and the outdoors, the ranch plans to offer escorted hunting trips for wounded veterans, escorted trail rides on horseback and adaptive hikes.

“Most importantly,” she said, “the veterans will be able to share their experiences and hopefully heal any wounds – including the unseen ones.”

The Kestlers plan on raising $2 million in construction funds and another $2 million in initial operating expenses through the nonprofit Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund. They have also set up a website – www.rememberourjoes.org- where people can learn more about the project or make tax-deductible donations.

Chrys said she hopes veterans and their families will find the ranch a welcoming place that helps them move forward.

“It’s a great place to meditate. I can leave a little bit of my grief, my sadness, my anger up there on that mountain,” she said.

 

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