The last of autumn’s colors were still hanging on to the trees in Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island Veterans Day weekend. A waxing crescent moon hung at the horizon over Smith Cove around sunset Sunday, as 15 veterans of recent conflicts gathered around a fire pit behind the preserve’s Manor House, dissecting the New York Giants’ strengths and weaknesses.
They’d already spent two days blazing new trails; building the fire pit; and hiking, kayaking and swimming in the waters surrounding the preserve, on a weekend retreat organized by Strongpoint Theinert Ranch, in the Magdalena Mountains of New Mexico.
Strongpoint Theinert is named for Shelter Island native son Joseph Theinert, a First Lieutenant with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, who died in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2010, protecting his men while he attempted to disable an improvised explosive device while on a foot patrol.
Lt. Theinert’s younger brother, Jimbo, serves as president of the Strongpoint Theinert Ranch, which is devoted to caring for veterans and helping them reacclimate to life on the home front.
“This is connecting a lot of great things in my life, continuing Joe’s legacy, nature and Shelter Island. I’m happy and honored to bring them here,” said Jimbo as the veterans returned from an icy swim to gather around the fire pit at dusk, before sitting down to a barbecue dinner in the Manor House.
“This was the right click of everything,” agreed Mashomack Preserve Development Director Rebecca Mundy. “On our side, we wanted to celebrate them and say ‘well done.’”
Mr. Theinert said the weekend came together quickly — with just a few weeks planning and the full support of The Nature Conservancy, which owns Mashomack Preserve.
“We had them paralleling, in a quicker time frame, what we do at the ranch,” he said.
On Saturday, the group blazed a new trail connection from a creek near the Manor House to a bluff overlook, and the group also built the fire pit at the suggestion of the preserve’s director, Jeremy Samuelson, who said the preserve often has campfires in the clearing between the Manor House and the bay.
“I love leaving things better than we found them, making things accessible,” said Mr. Theinert.
Also on Saturday, the veterans heard from The Nature Conservancy Policy Advisor Greg Jacob, who gave an overview of TNC’s Veterans in Nature’s Service program, which is devoted to hiring veterans to work in its preserves.
After a boisterous evening cooking in the Manor House kitchen Saturday, the group hit the trails at dawn Sunday, on a quest to “ruck” the preserve — pushing themselves in a strenuous series of hiking, swimming and paddling activities.
“They all share the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, to know that the guy next to you can depend on you,” says Mr. Theinert. “They’re holding on to trauma, and every time they get together, it alleviates some of that.”
For Casey Monroe, a Marine Corps veteran and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, that group cohesion is critical. Mr. Monroe, who specializes in trauma, said the members of the group gathered at the preserve all made sure to get each other’s contact information, and pledged to be there for one another when they are struggling.
“That bonding happens very quickly,” he said. “We’re in a beautiful environment, in nature, doing a work project outdoors to make the property better. If veterans work to make locations better for the next group, it motivates them to give back to future veterans.”
“It’s important that they feel safe to talk about things they don’t talk about in other workplaces, with civilians,” he added. “I help to facilitate that process, to help them know how to heal from that. And once they share here, they are more able to share with their partners and their children, in an appropriate manner.”
That sharing, he said, is crucial to detaching negative emotions from negative experiences, a key to overcoming trauma.
“When people can talk about the experiences without the pain, it helps their spouses and family and friends. It creates a bridge,” he added. “There’s an open invitation amongst these vets — you can contact me any time about anything. Suicide is a real thing amongst veterans. It’s serious business.”
Brandon Kuehn, a former Army infantryman out of Ft. Lewis, Washington, who served from 2004 to 2010, including 16 months in Iraq, has found his civilian calling as an outdoor recreation therapist.
“Everyone says they miss the guys more than they miss the military,” he said. And while he didn’t serve with any of the other guys at the retreat, he found a quick bond with them here, just as he had when visiting the Strongpoint Theinert Ranch.
He said there’s a lot that both civilians and veterans can do to share their life stories and build relationships. After all, he said, there are many civilians who wanted to serve but couldn’t for medical reasons.
“Find a group to be around again,” he advised veterans returning home from deployment. “It helps if there are some veterans in it, so you do have some commonality.”