For some, uphill battles or difficult challenges might be "like pulling teeth," but for Dr. Frank Kestler, that's just the start.
Kestler, a colonel in the National Guard, has served as a Guardsman for over two decades, and returned from his third deployment overseas last week. His first grandchild, Brooke, was born on his first day overseas.
The 56-year-old with dental practices in Mattituck and Shelter Island comes from a family that has served in the military spanning four straight generations – the youngest generation offering the ultimate sacrifice, when his stepson 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert was killed in battle in June of 2010 in Afghanistan.
Keslter was not deterred from his most recent trip, however. Quite the contrary, he volunteered before being called over.
He shared his thoughts with Patch shortly after his return home.
When did you join the National Guard? What made you want to join?
I joined 22 years ago. When I think about the time – that was before 9-11, so I didn’t have 9-11 as a cause. But what did take place at that time was Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In 1990 Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, and there was a need. But by the time they processed my application, the war was over.
For me, I’m following in the footsteps of my dad and his dad. My dad fought in World War II and Korea. And my grandfather on my dad’s side fought in World War I. On my mom’s side, my grandfather fought in World War I and World War II.
And then, obviously, Joey (your stepson) served in Afghanistan.
Yep. We always said Joey would either be a cowboy or in the armed services. He ended up doing both (laughs), serving in the cavalry.
So you volunteered to go over there after he died. How did that decision come about?
As an Army Reservist, about every five years you can expect to be called for a deployment. So you can wait to be called and put somewhere, or you can volunteer ahead of time so you can do a little bit of planning. After Joey was killed I knew I was going to be deployed again in a couple of years – so after talking with my family, I volunteered.
Certainly the fact that Joey had been there played a part – the country where he went on his last mission, and he was there as a military warrior and he felt he was doing the best job he could over there. I got a real feel for what Joey was trying to do, and I wanted to do the same thing I think.
Certainly going to the country where you’ve lost a son is something I wanted to do.
What was Afghanistan like compared to what he told you?
It was a lot like he had put it. It wasn’t always easy to tell who was friendly, who wasn’t friendly. I learned a lot about the Pashtun culture. I would say it was very close to the picture Joe had painted for us. It felt like I was walking in his footsteps – experiencing the culture he did, the kind of tribal warrior mentality, I had the opportunity to communicate with Afghans.
How would you say Afghanistan was different than Iraq?
Where I was in Afghanistan was about as close as you could be to the battlefield without being in it. Medical evacuation choppers were coming to the combat support hospital I was at. I was helping unload soldiers, assist surgeries – besides dealing with dental emergencies. I was right there.
As far as culturally – in Iraq, over 50 percent of their men and women read and write. They have women on the police force, in government, they’re teachers. Afghanistan isn’t there yet. About 18 percent of the population can read and write. And we were in the wild west of Afghanistan – it was very tribal. So I’m hoping they can follow the model that was done in Iraq. Ultimately it’s up to those people. They can embrace education and a modern way of living. Or they can go back to the stone ages if that’s what they want.
What lessons do you bring back to the East End of Long Island?
I’m certainly filled with gratitude that I live on the East End of Long Island. I’m a grateful business owner in Mattituck and Shelter Island, with residences in both places. I’m truly blesses.
In Khost Province there was no electricity in the province – just in the one town, Khost. It’s kind of funny we didn’t have electricity when I came back, but to me, to live in an area that has embraced electricity and education – that’s a blessing in itself.
The Third Annual Joseph Theinert 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament is coming up. Click here for more information.