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Losing one of our own

'Me, returning from a patrol,' is how Capt. Bruno de Solenni described this photo e-mailed from Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Eckert).
'Me, returning from a patrol,' is how Capt. Bruno de Solenni described this photo e-mailed from Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Eckert).

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By Adam Madison

A soldier from Crescent City was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday when an improvised explosive device blew up the vehicle he was in.

Capt. Bruno de Solenni, 32, of the Oregon National Guard, had been training Afghan soldiers for the last nine months in Afghanistan. He had also served in Egypt and spent a year and a half in Iraq.

Two Afghan interpreters were also killed and two soldiers were injured in the blast. No further details about the incident were available Monday.

Military databases indicated Bruno de Solenni may have been the first Del Norte County resident killed in action since American troops moved into Afghanistan and Iraq.

The death sent shockwaves through Crescent City, where Bruno's father and older brother are lawyers, his mother is a high school teacher and his twin brother owns a plumbing company.

His aunt oversees efforts to send 30-40 care packages a month to the troops.

Some of Bruno's relatives voiced doubts about the war when they were interviewed by The Triplicate for a front-page feature Sept. 6. But they were unanimous in their support for their captain, who e-mailed a long letter to the newspaper that appeared Sept. 13.

Even as he stated strong support for America's military missions in the Middle East and criticized media coverage for disillusioning the public, Bruno noted Americans' mixed views about the war.

"What has changed drastically since Vietnam and now is that even if the public doesn't support the war, they still support troops, which makes a huge difference," he wrote in his Sept. 11 email.

"This is especially comforting if you are one of those soldiers walking through the airport wearing your uniform and coming home on leave or returning from a deployment."

Family members said they were grateful for a rapid rush of community support as word spread of Bruno's loss, but it was too soon to take much comfort.

"He was supposed to be home for Christmas, said his father, local attorney Mario de Solenni. "Now he's coming home in a box."

Parents get the news

Mario was at home when Sgt. Alyssa Scott from the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office and two soldiers from the Oregon National Guard arrived Saturday.

"She says, ‘Wait here, I got to talk to you,' and comes back with these two guys," said Mario. "You know right away what happened when they show up."

"He volunteered to go on the mission he was killed on," said Mario, adding his son was sick and had been ordered to the "rear line" to regain his health.

"He was supposed to be in the rear line because of medical conditions and then he volunteered for this mission," said Mario. "People say that he sacrificed his life for his country, but we're the ones here sacrificing Bruno."

He said Bruno was almost killed by a mortar during an earlier deployment to Iraq.

"He was on patrol when he had a mortar — it turned out to be a dud — drop right between his legs," said Mario.

"We always thought Bruno was invincible," he said, noting his son had faced danger before his 12 years in the military as a timber faller and ocean fisherman. "We thought he'd survive the whole damn bunch of this war."

Bruno's mother, Cali Martin had just come home from Republican headquarters in Crescent City when she heard the news.

She and Mario are divorced but live near each other on parcels of the land where their children were raised.

"I came home around 6:30 and I saw two uniformed people along with an officer from the Sheriff's Office," said Martin. "I pretty well knew what that meant.

"I was shocked and I didn't want it to happen, but he was doing something he believed in," she said. "A lot of people have beliefs and they don't do anything for them."

She said she was proud of her son because he was killed while helping people, which he had felt a need to do since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Like his father, Martin said she was used to worrying for her son's life because he started falling timber as a oung man and later became an ocean fisherman on his boat, the Sea Belle.

"Every time he went out on that boat or out in the woods, there was always that fear," she said.

Now that their worst fear has come true, Martin and Mario have a new concern — the condition of their son's body.

Martin said the process to get Bruno's body back to Crescent City will take about 10 days.

Working on a shed

Other members of the family from as far north as Washington state and as far east as Pennsylvania gathered Monday at the home of Bruno's twin brother, Ricardo de Solenni, south of Crescent City.

They included Bruno's older brother, Gino de Solenni of Crescent City, sister Pia Conway from Philadelphia, and his best friends from childhood, Bill Langlois from Longview, Wash., and Sean Hogan from Crescent City.

Gino remembered his fallen brother as a leader.

"He was always one to inspire people, no matter where he was, he was able to bring out the good qualities in people," Gino said.

"He was always taking the lead, always the first one to jump in," said Gino, noting he had attended officer school with Bruno in the Oregon National Guard.

Langlois and Hogan were neighbors who spent their childhood hunting, fishing and hiking with Ricardo and Bruno on 118 acres owned by the de Solennis on Malone Road.

"If we were ever hanging out, he was always with us," Langlois said of Bruno.

All four graduated in 1994 from Del Norte High School.

Langlois said hard work was something they all learned at an early age —that was their common ground.

"Our parents have always raised us with a strong work ethic," said Langlois, a chain saw in his hand.

The three men were working on a shed on Ricardo's property in an attempt to distract themselves when a reporter arrived.

"It's easy to just work on the shed," said Ricardo. "It's not really getting any better though."

Hogan said, "Bruno always found the good in people, that's why he was over there, he wanted to help people."

Hogan has been friends with the de Solennis for more than 25 years and Langlois grew up with them practically from birth.

"There's certain people you know you're going to grow old with," said Hogan, looking toward Langlois, then Ricardo, and finally toward the shed.

Devoutly Catholic

Ricardo said the pain of losing his brother hurt the most during Sunday Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

"We went to church and all the people there were so supportive, I just wanted to cry — and I did," he said. As tears welled up again, he grabbed a nail bag and walked toward the shed.

Hogan said Bruno was devoutly Catholic, even finding time to attend Mass while in Afghanistan.

"Anytime there was a service, Bruno would be in it," he said.

Bruno's sister, Pia Conway, also spoke about her brother's Catholic faith, as well as her own.

"The irony is that we were praying for his safety — but he went home safely to God," she said.

Bruno's girlfriend, Farrah Bates, who drove from Seattle as soon as she heard the news, said they were planning to get married this summer.

The last time they talked was Friday at around lunchtime, said Bates.

"He just called to tell me he was going on his mission and that he loved me," she said. "He called me again, right before 4:30, to tell me he loved me again, but I couldn't get to the phone."

He left a message.

"I feel like now I've just stopped," Bates said.

Bruno's sister had one more thing to say Monday afternoon before heading back to her mother's home to meet with the rest of the family and a casualty assistance officer.

"Bruno really believed in what he was doing," Conway said. "He died a hero's death."

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