The coffin is carried in at the funeral Friday for...

The coffin is carried in at the funeral Friday for 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert in Shelter Island. (June 11, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

Under a clear sky that only moments earlier had triumphed over somber clouds, the body of 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert was laid to rest in a cemetery on his native Shelter Island.

His funeral, a Mass of Christian Burial held under a huge tent on the grounds of the Shelter Island public school he attended from kindergarten through high school, brought this bucolic island of 2,500 people to a halt. The library closed for the day, as did Town Hall and several businesses. American flags fluttered in the breeze along empty streets. The school's classrooms were vacant.

Theinert, 24, was killed June 4 when an improvised bomb exploded near him in the volatile Kandahar region of Afghanistan. He was the first soldier from the tight-knit community to be killed in action since 1967.

In the first of three eulogies, Michael Mundy, who had been Theinert's high school basketball coach, drew applause when he said many of the 1,500 attendees were uniformed personnel who came from as far away as New York City.

"But for the island community, we're here because we love Joe," Mundy said. "The sadness and the pain are everywhere."

He said he had been angered by Theinert's death, but soon came to believe it wasn't in vain.

"Everyone who knows Joe knows he was exactly where he wanted to be," Mundy said, "doing exactly what he wanted to do."

Theinert always was surprised when people thanked him for his service, his brother James Theinert said. James Theinert recounted a visit he and Joseph made to the American military cemetery at Normandy, where he said a gesture demonstrated his brother's lifelong reverence for the military.

"As we walked around and took in that beautiful somber place," James Theinert eulogized, he said his brother seemed to stop at each gravestone and to honor "each and every soldier."

Family members said Theinert, who entered the Army as second lieutenant in 2008 by completing a Reserve Officers Training Program, was particularly proud to be a platoon leader.

Days before the funeral, as they sifted through his effects in preparation for a Thursday wake, they found a green-bound collection of photographs of Theinert's family and friends.

Inscribed in the front cover, along with a pencil drawing he had done of the Army Airborne insignia, Theinert had written an explanation of why he had joined the military.

"The people in this book [are] why I choose to fight," the inscription read. "It is for them that I am willing to lay down my life.

"There is nothing glorious about war, but I will go into it to keep the people I love away from it.


"Never Forget"

Parts of the inscription, along with photographs, were hung on posters in the entryway to the school. People who attended his funeral passed the posters as they made their way through the building's hallways to a rear field where the funeral was held.

His family had considered having his burial at the nation's premier military cemetery, at Arlington, Va. But, his mother, Chrystyna Kestler, said they chose instead to bury him on Shelter Island.

He was given military honors at Our Lady of the Isle Cemetery, as his mother, of Mattituck, and his father, James Theinert, of Shelter Island, looked on. A rifle squad fired three volleys. A bugler's "Taps" cut the cemetery's springtime silence before a pair of helicopters, one police, one military, flew low overhead.

Then an Army officer gave Kestler the flag that had draped her son's coffin. She clutched the folded banner close to her, whispered a thank you, then kissed its star-studded surface.

As the ceremony ended, she paused to address the assembled crowd before making her way from her son's grave. "On behalf of my family and my community, I cannot express my gratitude to everyone," she said.

Then she invited the well-wishers to a picnic at the local American Legion post, and urged them to share memories of "this brave and courageous man, who was my little boy."

With Mark Harrington

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