Army runners participate in the Run for Veterans at Long...

Army runners participate in the Run for Veterans at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma. (June 4, 2011) Credit: Ed Betz

Chrystyna Kestler was dreading the approach of June 4 -- the first anniversary of the combat death of her 24-year-old son in Afghanistan.

Yesterday morning, though, she had something to look forward to. The East End mother of six, joined by her husband, Frank; family, friends and members of the 4220th U.S. Army Hospital reserve unit -- a crew of 22 in all -- participated in the second annual Run for Veterans.

They did it in memory of Kestler's son, Army 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert.

The 5-kilometer race at MacArthur Airport benefits Long Island 9-1-1 Veterans, which provides financial aid to struggling Nassau and Suffolk vets.

"I never want a veteran to be forgotten," Kestler said before the event. "Joey was passionate about his men and his service, and I feel passionately that this is how I can help take care of Joey's men and their families."

Last year, Billy Theinert, Joseph's older brother, was in Florida at a graduation when he and his fiancee got the tragic news.

The couple caught the next plane to Ronkonkoma, barely noticing as they arrived June 5 in a state of shock that the airport was hosting the inaugural run.

Billy Theinert's fiancee, Christine Cava, learned from her brother that this year's event would be held on the anniversary of Joseph's death. She thought it would be good to participate. "She knew we'd need a reason to get out of bed this morning," Kestler said. "People have done so much for me and my family. . . . Today we wanted to acknowledge the suffering of all veterans."

A platoon leader from Shelter Island, Theinert died after he and his 20 men, on a mission in Kandahar Province, came under fire and were forced toward an area mined with bombs. Theinert was killed when he stepped on a device that exploded. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Kestler said her son penned a "last letter" on his computer for family in case he died. He wrote: "I implore you not to grieve but rather to celebrate my life."

"All my boys were runners," Kestler said Saturday. "Joey would be happy we did this."

Overall, 1,930 people registered for the race, up from 1,255 entrants last year. The inaugural race raised $45,000 for the nonprofit, and organizers said they expected at least $60,000 would be raised this time.

Airport Commissioner Teresa Rizzuto greeted runners at the finish line. Race director Arthur Turner thanked Long Islanders for their support. "The turnout's awesome," he said.