By Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Drumsta
New York Army National Guard
ARIF KALA, Afghanistan (2/15/13) - The farm field near Arif Kala, Afghanistan, looks nothing like a memorial.
However, that's what it became last autumn as U.S. Army Reserve Col. Frank Kestler, surrounded by a cordon of solemn warriors, knelt and offered prayers for his stepson, New York Army National Guard 1st. Lt. Joseph Theinert, who died in combat there a little over two years before.
"To actually be there, where Joe was killed, was very sobering," Frank said.
Joe's family's search for healing has taken many forms, including transforming their New Mexico ranch into Strongpoint Theinert, a space for veterans to recover from the trauma of combat.
But Frank wanted to make the trip to Arif Kala from the moment he learned Joe died there. He also went for the family, and to find peace, he said.
"I knew I was the only member of the family to walk where Joe had walked with his men," he said.
Joe and his men had walked there, and fought there.
Deeply affected by the 9-11 attacks and committed to making a difference, Joe joined the New York Army National Guard and later volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, said his mother, Chrys Kestler.
Joe was leading an assault on an enemy position near Arif Kala when he was killed by the full force of an IED blast, Chrys said. Joe was buried with full military honors in Shelter Island, N.Y., where he was raised.
A little over two years later, Frank, an Army Reserve dentist, deployed to Afghanistan, where he immediately became intimate with the trauma of combat. He got blood on his boots while helping carry casualties during his first few days in country, he recalled.
Then he went to his assignment at Forward Operating Base Salerno. Just eight miles from the Pakistan border, the base had sustained a severe insurgent attack just before his arrival, he said.
In addition to providing dental care there and at 20 other bases, Frank assisted with surgeries and attended memorial ceremonies for Soldierss killed in combat.
Though these were eye-opening experiences, it felt good to help, he recalled. But he still felt a calling to travel to Arif Kala and visit the spot where Joe had fallen, he added.
"It had been on my mind for a long time," he said. "I felt the need to go there."
Once a hotbed for terrorist activity, the area had since become a model for security, Frank said.
"It was due to Joe and his squadron," he said.
But FOB Salerno is far from Arif Kala, which is the Dand District. Frank only had grid coordinates, pictures and some hand-drawn maps from Joe's Soldiers to go on.
But hundreds of Soldiers, SEALs and other combat warriors, whom he'd met during his time in Afghanistan, stepped forward to help him research the location and find ways across thousands of miles of forbidding, hostile country.
All of them recognized the need for the trip to Arif Kala and became determined to help get him there, Frank said. He found he was able to make the trip during his out-processing period, he recalled.
Through this network and military channels, Frank connected with Lt. Col. Russell Clark, a New York Army National Guard officer mentoring Afghan National Police (ANP) in Dand District.
Clark and the ANP had patrolled the area, and Clark wasn't surprised by the idea of visiting the area, Frank said.
"I think these combat arms Soldiers understand loss," he said.
Frank flew to Khandahar and met up with a convoy led by Clark. Using the "little bits of information" he had, they determined the location where Joe was killed, Frank said. Clark had actually conducted a reconnaissance of the area, he added.
"They had been to the area already," he said.
They traveled to the vicinity and spent the night at a nearby base, he recalled. A journey he thought was impossible was coming to fruition, yet he was calm, resolved in mind and spirit to see the place.
They set off the next day and rendezvoused with the ANP, who wanted to be part of the convoy security for the trip, Frank said. He began to feel great anticipation on the way, he added.
Frank's description – a plowed field next to a grape field – makes the spot seems unremarkable. However his actions –- and the reactions of the half dozen Soldiers providing security – were not.
Doffing his gloves, he knelt about 20 yards from the spot where Joe died, Frank said. Using some holy water Chrys had given him, he blessed the ground and prayed, he recalled.
"It was very emotional," he said. "I felt very close to Joe."
He began to say the Lord's prayer, and the Soldiers, also emotional now, joined in.
"At that point, the tears were running pretty good," Frank recalled.
He then traded the empty holy water for an empty plastic bag.
"I took some earth from the same field where Joe's blood ran," he said.
Frank is home now and Chrys, who was reluctant for him to make the trip to Arif Kala, feels differently now.
"It's brought a measure of peace to the family," she said.
After the journey he felt a little like the first man to have walked on the Moon, Frank said. He recalled asking himself, "what's next?"
But he knows Joe would want him keep on living, and Frank is home now, and Strongpoint Theinert is going forward. Like his family, he remains dedicated to helping see the project through.
"It's whatever the future brings, with the Soldiers and their families," he said.