“The Telling Project” Debuts at Bay Street

As Chrystyna Kestler, mother of fallen Marine Joseph Theinert and WWII Purple Heart recipient Howard Jackson look on, Vietnam Army Bronze Star recipient Jim Colligan reenacts a basic training scene with Afghanistan veterans Marine Sergeant Thomas Spotteck and Marine Lance Corporal Michael Mundy during a rehearsal for "The Telling Project" at the Shelter Island High School on Saturday. Michael Heller photo

“I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” – Martin Luther

Chrystyna Kestler’s morning begins with prayer. Without it those spared quiet moments, her days do not run as smoothly. Deep faith helps her to cope with the loss of her son, Army First Lieutenant Joseph Theinert, who was killed in action during combat operations in Afghanistan in 2010. “It still hurts,” she says. “I still can’t believe he’s not here, but it’s not as crushing as it was in 2010. It doesn’t get softer; the edges just are not as sharp. It’s more like a dull ache. I have days when it comes crashing in, but it’s spread out more.”

A Gold Star Mother, Kestler was at first reluctant to join the official organization. Eight years later, she is the president of the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund and a founder of Strongpoint Theinert. She’s spoken to many people over the years, something she says is an honor, privilege, and duty since her son can no longer speak for himself. Recently she has been rehearsing with four veterans for “The Telling Project” at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor — a stage performance that allows veterans and their family members the chance to share their stories of war behind enemy lines and at home.

Jim Colligan, a Vietnam veteran who served in the United States Army, and a friend were called upon to pick up Theinert’s body. Both men had also lost children of their own. “The worst time of my life was losing my daughter,” recalls Colligan. “It stays with you forever. That day of picking up Joe and watching what followed, the reaction of people on the East End, it raised a new hope. He was a hero, he paid the ultimate price.”

Colligan was sent to Vietnam in 1970, one month before he was to be married. He saw segregation and racism in the barracks, alcohol and drug addiction, heroin, rebellion. Calling it the Army’s lowest hour, Colligan said the country did not agree with the government’s justification of that war, and that the mission was clouded by that, and not comprehended fully by troops on the ground. There were many ugly moments, says Colligan, that he chose not to remember.

“It was a little bit of survival of the fittest,” Colligan says. “It hardened you up a lot. You became more skeptical, your language deteriorated. I don’t want to paint the experience as all negative, but too often I saw the negative side.”

Regardless of stance, the anti-war movement that was born out of the turmoil of the Vietnam War impacted everyone, said Colligan. Post-war, he says never had to defend his service because no one asked him. He had stayed in the Reserves while also teaching health education. Because of the nature of his class, students felt more comfortable discussing the war. “The first question is always, ‘Who did you kill?’” he says. “You answer that, and move on.”

Having flown 23 special intelligence missions and over 20 regular missions for the United States Army, 93-year-old World War II veteran Howard Jackson says he still has nightmares. Along with other soldiers, he took secret oaths no one knew about, one of the most frightening being “The Bombardiers Oath” to protect the secrecy and missions of bombsights, like the Norden bombsight. The penalty for breaking the oath was death.

“For years I could not talk or write about the missions of World War II, Korea, and the Cold War,” Jackson says, adding some missions still cannot be discussed. “It was hard on family, friends, and fellow service buddies. The fear effect was there.”

Other side effects from his time as a soldier included chills, fever, and shakes every night. Though that has somewhat subsided over the years, the recall has not stopped for Jackson. Sharing his stories with other veterans has helped him, and he even saw a production of “The Telling Project” a few years ago. “It is a great way to reach those who have no idea what it is like to serve, whether in combat or in other ways,” he says. “’The Telling Project’ covers it all. I am honored to be part of it.”

For one veteran, this will be the first time he has really ever opened up about his time in service.

Thomas Spotteck was deployed twice to Afghanistan as a United States Marine, and had a third offer to re-enlist around the same time Theinert was killed in action. He declined. “There’s not one reason to give,” Spotteck says. “Joe’s death did have an effect on my decision. That was the icing on the cake. It was tough on me and my family, especially because my family was close with the Theinert family. My deployments were not the easiest either.”

The veteran shares that he has tried to move on from his time overseas, opting not to talk to people about it anymore in an effort to suppress the memories of what he had experienced. The Post 9/11 GI Bill had changed around that time as well, and offered promising opportunities. Spotteck went to Washington State University and studied viticulture and oenology. Today, he is the assistant winemaker and oenologist at Lenz Winery in Peconic. It is a new life, Spotteck says, and he is a different person now.

When he takes the stage for The Telling Project, it will be the first time even those closest to Spotteck will hear what Afghanistan was like. “When people ask I keep it vague,” he says. “It was what it was. My girlfriend of four years has never heard the story. That’s how little I talk about it.”

For another young veteran, Theinert being killed solidified his decision to serve. Growing up, Michael “Zack” Mundy recalls two things he wanted to do with his life. The first was to go to Duke University and play basketball. The second was to be a United States Marine. He never got that scholarship to Duke, and on his 17th birthday he called a recruiting office and met with a recruiter the next day.

“Because I was only 17, I needed permission from my parents,” Mundy says, adding his father had been in the Marine Corps. “My father at first was a little hesitant on me joining. He knew that I wanted to be in the infantry. Why else join the Marines if you weren’t going to be in the fight? After a lot of persuasion and talking he agreed to sign.”

While some veterans like Colligan feel a sadness for young soldiers today, especially those that serve multiple tours, from Mundy’s perspective it is his responsibility as an American. “To me it wasn’t about age, it was about doing my duty to my country,” he explains. “Why shouldn’t I go if there were guys going before me at the same age and some of them not coming home?”

Through the time of drafts to volunteer enlistment, active duty and the memory of wars past weigh heavy on soldiers and their families. To heal, one Gold Star Mother and four veterans are opening themselves up, and sharing their stories, on a public stage.

“Everyone needs to find their own way,” Kestler says. “After the shock wears off, connect with other people with a similar experience.”

“The Telling Project” debuts on Friday, February 16, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit thetellingproject.org or baystreet.org.