Lt. Joseph Theinert, center, with his stepbrother, Nick Kestler, left,...

Lt. Joseph Theinert, center, with his stepbrother, Nick Kestler, left, and brother Jimbo Theinert. Credit: Handout

Two years ago, when Sag Harbor buried a young Marine who died protecting fellow troops in Iraq, a Shelter Island native about to go into the Army stood among the other mourners at the funeral.

Residents of Shelter Island, where flags have been returned to half-staff and neighbors again are offering one another sob-shaken embraces, are united in grief anew.

Lt. Joseph Theinert, who showed up at the funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, became the first Shelter Island native to die in war in nearly 43 years. He was 24.

His death last week in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan, where soldiers Tuesday held a memorial service in his memory, has spread a collective sadness through Shelter Island, a close-knit hamlet of about 2,500 full-time residents cradled by the twinkling waters of Peconic Bay.

"The whole community is going through a huge loss," said Nick Gross, 26, a pilot on one of the two ferry links between Shelter Island and Long Island proper. "I've known his family my whole life."

"This is a big deal, and it should be a big deal," Gross said Tuesday, shortly after nudging a white-hulled ferry against the wooden pilings of Shelter Island's north terminal. "There are only about a dozen people from the Island who are even on active duty."

Mike Loriz, commander of Mitchell Post 281 - Shelter Island's lone American Legion post - said there are currently seven residents serving in the active duty military. The post's historian, Dorothy Clark, 85, said there have been only 10 island wartime deaths since the United States entered World War I.

After classes ended Tuesday afternoon at Shelter Island School, the Island's K-12 public school that stands next to the Legion post, students stopped to plant flags on the traffic circle outside.

"It's such a tight-knit community that a death like this tends to pull us together," said Loriz, a commercial airline pilot who learned of Theinert's death when his wife telephoned him in Memphis.

In a dental office 100 yards from the traffic circle, Theinert's stepfather sat with Theinert's parents as they reflected on the slain soldier's life, and on the East End community that has embraced them.

"The million-pound weight we feel, everyone has taken a piece of it," said Theinert's mother, Chrystyna Kestler, who runs the business with her dentist husband, Frank Kestler.

Theinert's father, James Theinert, said on the morning after he learned of his son's death he told a friend he might better understand how to cope if he could talk with Jordan Haerter's father, Christian Haerter of Sag Harbor, whom he had never met.

A half-hour later, Haerter knocked on his door.

"He stepped through the door, and I knew immediately who he was," Theinert said. "It was an instant bond. We just held each other."

James Theinert said when Army notification officers came to his Sag Harbor home, he insisted that the officers allow him to deliver the news to Chrystyna Kestler, of nearby Mattituck.

"I told them they were not going to tell his mother that news," said Theinert, a retired New York City fireman. "That was my job."

Frank Kestler said that sense of duty described the kind of man whose death they are all now struggling to comprehend.

"I think that is something Joe would have done," said Frank Kestler, as he fought back tears. "You're looking at Joe when you look at his dad."

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Updated 26 minutes ago Newsday/Sienna College poll ... Avalon Bay apartments in Amityville ... JFK travel this weekend ... Summer concert preview

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