On Tuesday, United States Army First Lt. Joseph James Theinert of Shelter Island and Marine Lance Cpl. Jordan C. Haerter of Sag Harbor were posthumously inducted into the New York State Senate’s Veterans Hall of Fame.
Their mothers, JoAnn Lyles and Chrys Kestler, drove together to the Albany ceremony to accept the honor on their sons’ behalf.
The nomination had been made by State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, who said in a press release that he did so “to demonstrate our respect and gratitude for their patriotism and sacrifice.”
Both men died while protecting the lives of those under their command. Lance Corporal Haerter was killed in action at the age of 19, on April 22, 2008, in Ramadi, Iraq, during which time it was the center of insurgency. Lieutenant Theinert deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as a new first lieutenant, and was killed in action at the age of 24 approximately six weeks later, on June 4, 2010, while on a patrol.
“Joe and Jordan had never met,” Ms. Kestler said on Sunday, “but when he heard the news of Jordan’s death, he called and asked me to come to West Point so he could purchase dress blues for the funeral. It was the first time he wore them.”
The two mothers had met before at Riverhead Building Supply, where Ms. Lyles works, when Ms. Kestler said she “noticed Jordan’s name at her desk.”
She told Ms. Lyles, “My son is getting ready to deploy,” and cried. From that moment, in addition to a business relationship, the two shared the bond of being military mothers. When she later learned of her own son’s death, Ms. Kestler said Ms. Lyles was one of the first to contact her. Ms. Lyles told her, “I never wanted you to be in my place. You can lean on me.”
On the same day, Lance Corporal Haerter’s father, Christian Haerter, who lives and owns a business Sag Harbor, said he put on a suit and went to the house of Jim Theinert, Lieutenant Theinert’s father, to offer his support. “I don’t know if it helped or not,” he said, “It’s a different journey for everyone.”
Mr. Haerter has made raising awareness a part of his journey. He does this, in part, through license plates such as “Son K.I.A.” and “Why War?” which he had on his motorcycle before his son was killed. These are not statements of protest, but rather a way to inspire people to think about the issue. “We do it for Joey too,” he said. “We put his face in different places to keep people remembering, some people forget how young they were.”
Bill Clark, an owner of the South Ferry that connects Sag Harbor and Shelter Island, spoke on Monday of the outpouring of support from Lieutenant Theinert’s friends and family.
“He was soft-spoken, humble, and endeared to all at the ferry,” said Mr. Clark of Lieutenant Theinert, who worked on the ferry for three summers during college. He said that Lieutenant Theinert was completely sure of what he wanted to do. “It was just in his gut to serve,” he said, “in a realistic, powerful way that was believable and admirable to me.”
On learning of his death, the owners of the ferry company decided to rename one of the boats after him. The Lt. Joe Theinert was christened on July 3, 2010. When passengers ask about the name, one of the boat’s captains, Christopher Stone, who knew Lieutenant Theinert “since he was on his mother’s hip,” couldn’t answer without becoming emotional. He decided to make up informational postcards to hand to passengers, telling them about Lieutenant Theinert — his academic achievements, the fact that he was a star athlete in cross-country, lacrosse, and basketball for the Shelter Island, Pierson, and Ross Schools.
Last spring, the ferryboat welcomed his entire 1-71 Calvary, 1st Brigade combat team, with a cruise and live on-board music. On Shelter Island, residents lined the streets to welcome them. Ms. Lyles planned a lunch at the Sag Harbor American Legion Hall. There was a lobster bake at the Kestlers’ Shelter Island farm, with a visit from the New York Police Department Emerald Society bagpipers, and a breakfast at the Shelter Island Fire Department.
Both Gold Star mothers welcome their sons’ comrades to their homes, treating them as they would their own sons. They come for the annual Soldier Ride the Hamptons each July, dedicated to Lance Corporal Haerter, a fund-raising event for wounded veterans that Ms. Lyles has become active in.
“Joe’s death is part of the quilt that makes up my life,” Ms. Kestler said, “It is a big, ugly tear. People have helped to repair it, but it’s still ugly. Now I can laugh with my other two sons, and continue to be a wife and mother.” One thing that has helped her is being of service to other veterans.
Mr. Haerter agreed, saying that helping others is a way of “making something good out of something really bad.” He does this through Jordan’s Initiative, an organization he founded to help veterans and active members of the military and their families. The organization recently delivered an adaptive custom-fit bicycle to a marine with limited use of his legs. The organization also helps veterans with living expenses, and provides a community spirit award annually to a Pierson High School student. “I feel that Jordan’s heart is in it, and it makes me feel better,” he said.
As for the Sag Harbor bridge named for her son, Ms. Lyles said, “It was all a very nice surprise. . . . I knew nothing about it.” Jordan’s Initiative added the plaque on the bridge “to tell Jordan’s story to those who might wonder.”
People continue to pay tribute to the two fallen soldiers with memorials small and large. Lieutenant Theinert’s Shelter Island basketball jersey was retired this year at a 3-on-3 basketball tournament in his name and now hangs in the school gym. His childhood friends organized the tournament, held around Thanksgiving when people are back home, “not only to honor Joey,” said Carla Cadzin, “but for the community, and so the younger kids know his story. . . . Whether they are 16, 25, or 65, he has brought everyone closer in so many ways.”
Tattoos have become a popular tribute, as well. “I’m not sure how many —maybe 15 — and each is a unique design,” Ms. Lyles said. “Every so often I get another e-mail or Facebook message with a photo. Many chose the military memorial symbol; boots, rifle, and helmet, with Jordan’s name and date of death.”
Lance Cpl. Michael Mundy, a friend of Lieutenant Theinert’s who recently returned from a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan with the Marines, said he just got the tattoo “J10” over his heart. The whole Ross School lacrosse team had painted “J10,” representing Lieutenant Theinert’s 10th Mountain Division, on their calves during his first deployment to Afghanistan, he said.
“I still look up to Joe,” he said in an e-mail. “I know that Joe was looking after me every second.” He got the tattoo over his heart “so I know that he is with me always.”
At sunrise on Memorial Day, Mr. Haerter will place flags in the flag holders that he installed himself on the bulkhead along the bridge named for his son. He said that before people enjoy Memorial Day with beer, watermelon, and barbecues, he hopes they take time to remember and recognize those who have sacrificed their lives for their country. There are a lot of other people from Sag Harbor who have been killed, he said. “Plant a flag, help the V.F.W. to put flags on graves, and teach kids about the meaning of the day.”
In a thank-you letter framed with a photograph of his son that hangs at the Sag Harbor Police Station, Mr. Haerter wrote: “There is no way that I can ever fill in the void that was left when Jordan died, but it is comforting to know that we live in a community that cares for one another.”