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How a surviving sister helps other families heal

Jessica Manfre Avatar

The attacks of 9/11 united a divided country and inspired a fierce and passionate generation of service to America’s defenders. Marine Corps Corporal Robert Steinbrecher was one of the first to raise his own hand as a teenager, though he’d have to wait until he graduated. 

His sister Anna Keithly reflected fondly on their early years.

“Growing up in the Steinbrecher family was and is an amazing and glorious experience. Robert and I are a part of seven children born to Donald and Catherine Steinbrecher,” she shared. “We grew up on a small farm right outside of Ursa, Illinois, in a town of 500. We roamed the woods, creeks and fields when we were not in school or doing our chores.”

He was the fourth child born in four years, and with three older sisters, he was always dressed up and made to play their games of house. Keithly suspects those years led to Robert’s love of cooking. He also excelled at football, and the family loved watching him play under the Friday night lights during high school. 

“During high school, Robert always loved to serve and help others. He was very patriotic and wanted to serve his country. When he met with a Marine recruiter he knew what he would be doing after high school,” she explained. “I remember when he returned from boot camp and how much he had changed. I think he was two feet taller and had grown from a small little brother into an adult man. After boot camp he began his career and traveled to Texas for training and then went on to Okinawa, Japan.” 

Steinbrecher was affectionately called “Rob Stein” by his family and spent time in the Philippines before deploying to support the Iraq War. His sister recalled receiving the letters and emails with updates of how things were, good and bad. 

“I remember when he returned home from Iraq the whole family greeted him at the small Regional Airport in Quincy. Anyone in the airport probably thought someone famous was arriving that day. We had signs, balloons and American flags ready to greet him,” she said. 

The family was shocked when he made the decision not to reenlist and instead enrolled in Illinois State University where he was studying geology. He visited home often and always spent holidays with his family. He was in his senior year when he died by suicide on September 22, 2011. 

“I’ll remember that traumatizing night for the rest of my life. Robert had struggles leading up to the day of his suicide. Oftentimes I would ask myself and even others if we should’ve seen signs,” Keithly shared. “After many years of counseling and seeking resources I now realize there is nothing we could have done. He made a decision and was in a dark place that we do not understand, only those that are in that place could. I surrounded myself with others who also understood what I was going through after losing a sibling to suicide. I attended a TAPS Suicide Survivor Seminar and then a Siblings retreat. I found that my siblings and I had the benefit of having our own little sibling-sharing group and that I wanted to help other siblings have that as well.”

Out of the deepest despair came a desire to stand with others. Keithly began working for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and planning events like the one that changed her life. 

“I continue to honor and remember Robert every day of my life. I often think about what our lives would be like if he was still here with us. I wonder if he would be married, would he have children, what would he be doing for a career? I also thank him every day for the time we did have with him and the gifts he has given us in the afterlife,” she said. 

Despite their loss, the family believes deeply in service. 

“Military service is so important for our country. If men and women did not make the choice to sign up to protect our country, what would our country look like? I can only imagine what life would be like if we had no military,” Keithly said. The military is here to protect all citizens and to create peace in our country as well as in other countries we are assisting. My brother William also served in the Marines from 2008 to 2012 and was serving at the time Robert died.”

Memorial Day is a somber holiday set aside to reflect on the fallen. This means those who lost their lives during their time of service or through silent battles when it was over. Regardless of how they gave their lives, their lives and sacrifice will never be forgotten. 

When Keithly began her journey with TAPS, she wrote an OpEd to help tell her story of “why.” It begins and ends with her brother.  Each day I have the privilege of waking up not knowing who I will talk, text or email with, but I know that I will make a difference in someone’s day. I may not find out till months later, but eventually I will hear from someone how important that voicemail, text message or email I sent made a difference in his or her life. I sometimes hear your call saved my life, I don’t know where I would be today without the help of my survivor care team advocate. When I hear those words from a survivor I know everything I do is worth it.

My favorite part of my job is finally getting to meet a survivor I have been talking to for months. We have shared tears and laughter all in one conversation. Sometimes I will spend a short five minutes talking to them and other times it could be an hour or more. We create a bond and connection by sharing about our loved ones who are gone too soon. Once at the National Military Survivor Seminar over Memorial Day weekend I stopped to talk with my fiancé, who was sitting in a main hallway of the hotel during breakfast time. He was talking to a lady who he had never met and I joined in the conversation when all of a sudden the lady saw my nametag and excitedly said “You’re Anna?” I said “Yes” and she started crying and hugging me saying “Thank you for all of the calls” “I am so glad to have finally met you.”She was a surviving sibling I had been connecting with for many months. We both knew we would be at the seminar and had planned to connect. This was a moment I will never forget. These are the moments that I remember and hold close to my heart. I think of these moments when I am getting ready to make that first call to a survivor when I know it has only been days or weeks since he or she lost their loved one. These are the moments that I live for and I would not have them if it wasn’t for my brother and his service to our country. I am grateful for him and all of the love he has provided me before and after his death.

“Our family members who have died continue to live on in their legacies and since my brother was never married and never had children I am his legacy,” Keithly shared. “I will continue to say his name and talk about him for as long as I can. I will help my future generations to remember Robert and say his name as well.”

Jessica Manfre is an author and freelance writer for multiple publications. She is a licensed social worker, earning her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Central Florida in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Northwestern State University. Jessica is the co-founder and CFO of Inspire Up, a 501c3 nonprofit promoting global generosity and kindness through education, empowerment and community building. She is the spouse of an active duty Coast Guardsman and mother of two. When she isn't working, you can find her reading a good book and drinking too much coffee.