“War is the province of danger, and therefore courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior.”
– General Karl Von Clausewitz
This is the introduction of my new book about my friend Bruno de Solenni. He died in Afghanistan in 2008.
Brave Soldier: The Bruno de Solenni Story
By Dominic Oto
Captain Bruno G. de Solenni
Killed in Action near Maiwand District, Kandahar Afghanistan
September 20, 2008
Hanif and Ramin, our two intrepid interrupters, with us since the beginning.
Killed in Action near Maiwand District, Kandahar Afghanistan
September 20, 2008
If there is any glory in war, let it rest with brave men like these.
On September 20, 2008, Captain Bruno de Solenni, a brave American soldier who was loved and admired, and with everything to live for was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
How did this happen?
I was a close friend of Bruno’s. We spent almost a year together in training at Fort Riley, Kansas and in Afghanistan. I was talking to him right up until the moment he died. In that time I got to know about his life: his adventures, his dreams for the future, the triumphs and defeats of the generous, intense, fun-loving man who was Bruno de Solenni.
We were in the same gun truck when we hit a 500-pound roadside bomb. I was driving, and Bruno was the gunner. Bruno and two other brave men died that day. I lived, and he died. I can’t tell you why he died and I lived. No one can.
We were unlikely friends. We were two very different men. Bruno was physical and brave. I am bookish and afraid. We came from different parts of the country, with different backgrounds, different religious beliefs, and different political opinions-and yet we put all those differences aside and became buddies. But I can tell you about his life, but I must also tell you of his death and the events which preceded it. I have thought long, and hard about that- whether to go into it all or to keep parts of it suppressed, the feelings of anger, regret and sorrow over Bruno’s death have been bottled-up for almost a decade. In the end, I was guided by what Bruno told me when I wondered about whether I should be frank and open as he was about our mission to train an infantry battalion of Afghan soldiers. Bruno pointed to a quote in his notebook from Ernest Hemingway, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” I love that quote. I have been reading and re-reading Hemingway ever since.
Bruno was always open and blunt, and for him, there was only one way to account for things- to tell the whole truth about them, holding nothing back. I know he would want me to tell his story the same way. I attempt to tell the reader Bruno’s story truly, the way it happened. There are ecstasy and sorrow, fear and bravery, and with some luck, the reader will get to know about the brave soldier, his friends called, “the heart and soul of our team.”
This is the story of how Bruno and I came to know each other and help each other. We were both soldiers fighting in a foreign land far from home who became friends and developed an enduring friendship until tragedy struck.
This is what I tried to do in telling Bruno’s story, holding nothing back. This is as close as I could get to the “Why” Bruno died in Afghanistan on September 30, 2008.
Bruno de Solenni died at the age of thirty-two. He left behind a loving family and a great many loving friends. And with this book, I hope that when they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember, but, rather, how this brave man lived. Bruno is deeply missed and never forgotten.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
Matthew 5:9 KJB
I am almost finished writing a book about my friend Bruno. Trying to remember and capture Bruno is why I started writing.
Bruno was a fearless warrior, a loving brother, and uncle. Bruno led the life of an American hero. His renowned compassion and courage made him a legend to anyone that knew him.
I wanted to write a candid, essential portrait of this celebrated warrior – a man whose death only added to the legend of Bruno. But first I had to set the scene. I hope you like it.
SAINT JOSEPH CATHOLIC CEMETERY, CRESCENT CITY, CALIFORNIA- January 1, 2013-
I park my truck at the bottom of the small hill of the cemetery. I slowly walk up the hill to the gnarled old tree that is beside the grave. I am stopped as soon as I see his tombstone.
I feel like I have hit an invisible brick wall. My breathing quickens, I feel like someone punched the air out of my lungs, my legs grow weak, and I fall to my knees in front of his grave. I began to shake, and my throat constricts. My eyes are riveted to his grave marker with his name:
BRUNO GIANCARLO DE SOLENNI, CPT, U.S. Army, Afghanistan
I see his grave, but my mind is reeling, and I dissolve into the day he died.
MAIWAND DISTRICT, KANDAHAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN- September 20, 2008
We were on a convoy from our base in Helmand to Kandahar. I am driving the truck, and Bruno is the gunner. The steering wheel jerks in my hands as if it suddenly alive. The truck cab turns night into day as if the Sun suddenly appeared with a colossal roar and a mighty rush of wind from an explosion. Outside the world streaked by. I can see the hood of the truck folding into and crashing into the window.
“This can’t be happening!” my mind protests, despite the fact that I see impossible things. The blinding brightness slowly fades into crushing metal and then fire and smoke. I am spinning like I am in a washing machine, black and red, black and red, and suddenly the steering wheel is ripped free from my hands, and I am screaming…
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN- September 22, 2008
Bruno’s memorial service was not a funeral. His body was not here. It was a memorial service to say goodbye to a friend. The team gathered to honor their fallen comrade. We knelt in front of the helmet, boots, weapon, and picture of Bruno. We all openly wept.
The team was more than just a team of combat advisors, and we were a fighting unit. Over the last eight months, we had become a tightly knit family, best friends, and brothers. We would and did lay down our lives for one another.
Bruno was the “heart and soul” of the team, and now he was gone. We gathered to give a solemn salute and final goodbye to our brother-in-arms as he was returned home. The memorial service was held just before the body was to be flown back to the U.S.
Bruno’s coffin was draped in the American flag. It was carried the final few feet onto an Air Force plane bound home to America. The Chaplain said, “Today we remember our friend, comrade and a fellow American. We the sacrifice he made for us, our country, and our freedom.” In the end, heartbroken service members hugged, cried and comforted each other.
Spotting the rest of my teammates among the mourners was easy. We were struck with grief. The physical, mental and emotional loss of Bruno had taken a heavy toll. We were hunched over, fidgeting and crying. Our physical bodies were in the chapel, but our minds were still on the desert floor 60 kilometers away, where Bruno had died. It was a place none of us would ever truly ever leave.
The remains our fallen hero were flown from Kandahar in Afghanistan to New Castle Air National Guard Base in Delaware. In Delaware, Bruno’s family was waiting to escort him home.
CRESCENT CITY, CA- October 4, 2008
Bruno’s funeral was like an extraordinary class reunion of all the people that loved him. Here were all the figures that he talked about in Afghanistan gathered in this chapel to say goodbye to him.
As a timber faller, Bruno labored through the spring and summer in groves of giant redwoods, cedar, and fir. As a soldier, he died in Afghanistan. The tree trunks he sawed and milled became his coffin built by his friends and brothers who were his pallbearers. They dug his grave at the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Cemetery in Crescent City and laid him to rest.
The Man, The Legend
Bruno was a man whose life could come out of a novel. He had an exceptional mind and an incredible talent to relate to other human beings, whoever they were and no matter they come from. He was a compassionate man who could engage anyone on so many levels. Bruno could sense human issues and feelings about a subject. On another level and at the same time he could deal with hard facts like statistics. Usually, those two qualities seem to cancel each other out in an individual, but they came together in Bruno.
In 2008, when we went to Afghanistan, the war changed. We went as soldiers but also as peacemakers acting as combat advisors to an Afghan Infantry Battalion (600 men). Combat advisors on the ground advising the Afghan National Army could tell we were losing the war. The generals in Kabul maintained that we were winning the war. The Advisors were caught between the two. It was an adversarial relationship. Bruno always helped me to understand the war and what we, the Americans, were doing there.
I think a lot of this comes from Bruno being fearless. He could work at the tactical level, take what he saw down there, and apply at the strategic level. Bruno gave the entire team the perspective of how we were helping the Afghans. His daily talks shaped my view of the war. Bruno helped me to come to grips with the war in a way that I would not have been able to without him.
Something to remember is that America was at the High Noon of its power in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We thought that whatever we were doing in Afghanistan was right and good simply because we were Americans. We succeed in this noble undertaking because we were Americans. Bruno embodied that idealism.
We wanted to win the war for the Afghans and for ourselves. Bruno felt the best way to do this was, to tell the truth. Bruno had a keen sense of honor as a soldier. Bruno was enraged by the way people back home saw the war.
Bruno was my friend and this how I remembered him.
SAINT JOSEPH CATHOLIC CEMETERY, CRESCENT CITY, CALIFORNIA- January 1, 2013
Tears are streaming down my face. I am back at the grave marker trying to compose myself.
I say to his tombstone, “I did my best Bruno, to remember you, to honor you.”
The tears are coming stronger. An intense swirl of emotions is stirring inside of me. Feelings of regret, sorrow, anger, and gratitude overwhelm me.
“I’ve tried never to forget you. I don’t know why you died and I lived. I have done my best to be worthy of the gift you gave me and what you gave me. I will never forget you. Until I see you again, old friend.”
I knew I had to get on with my life, and it was Bruno would have wanted.
I love Marines. They are America’s Spartan warriors. They are always ready to do battle. They are closet idealists and pessimists.
Marines have an intense feeling of identity. They have almost a mystical connection of belonging to an elite fighting force of almost invincible warriors.
Some of this attitude comes from their brutal and efficient training. Another part of that comes from their deep confidence and pride in their mission and leaders.
There is no better friend and no worse enemy than a U.S. Marine.
Lewis “Chesty” Puller, Sr.
No Marine has commanded more respect and admiration than General Lewis “Chesty” Puller. His bulldog face, his barrel chest, gruff voice and common touch made him the epitome of a Marine combat officer.
His long, distinguished career made him a legend. He was the most decorated Marine in history. He was a descendant of Robert E. Lee and a cousin to George S. Patton.
In a forty year career, he rose from buck private to general. He fought in five wars. On five separate occasions, he was awarded the Navy Cross- a military honor second only to the Medal of Honor.
Chesty Puller was a Marine’s Marine. The men under his command idolized him. He is a legend in the Marine Corps the way babe Ruth exemplifies baseball or the way Yeats stands for the melancholy Irish.
Being his only son would be hard.
Lewis B. Puller, Jr.
Lewis B. Puller Jr. was a sensitive and intelligent man. He is a gripping writer who tells you about his tragic ordeal after Vietnam in his autobiography “Fortunate Son.”
Puller’s story is a difficult book to read because of the subject matter, but it is wonderful at the prose level. It tells a harsh and forbidding story that made me think about the larger themes of his book.
Puller’s story sounded so much to me like my own story- only bigger, more intense and much more tragic.
His book is an autobiography, a record of the life of a wounded Marine. His writing is haunting, devastating and his story lingers with you long after his book and life have ended.
His book explores his suffering. His telling of that pain is sincere and brutal. He makes you have sympathy for him. His redeeming quality is his optimism and absolute refusal to give up.
Puller’s thoughtfulness and undiminished patriotism and his heroic battle against injury, alcohol, and depression provide a genuinely moving human drama.
He wanted to reclaim his life despite losing half of his body on a booby trap in Vietnam. He endured years of surgery and rehabilitation, alcoholism and a feeling that he had let himself and his father down.
Puller’s book has the blood-red glare of anger and bitterness. But his story had hope, the glow of morning sunlight of a promising new day. His chronicle was moving and powerful.
Puller writes with simplicity and candor, with touches of spontaneous humor. His outcry of agony and isolation is harrowing. It leaves the reader overwhelmed with wonder at the torture a human being can absorb this side of madness.
Puller makes you bear witness to his pain, rage, and bitterness. Puller had come so far, only to end his own life in the end. His death baffled and disappointed me.
I wanted to explore some themes from the book.
Father and Son Relationships
Puller’s relationship with his father Chesty dominates his life. Chesty was a loving father. Chesty was nearly fifty years old when Puller was born.
Puller wants to make his father proud. He writes about the unspoken assumptions of responsibility of being Chesty’s only son and heir to his father’s heroic legacy. Almost every decision he makes in his early life is in reaction to his father’s legacy.
Chesty was proud when his only son went off to Vietnam as a Marine Infantry Officer. Puller returned three months later as one of the most grievously wounded men of the Vietnam War.
Puller’s greatest contribution to literature is the exploration of the value of human life. Puller constantly wonders how he will continue to “live” and “to function” and most importantly “to contribute and serve” even after the loss of both legs and most of his hands.
Even after a horrific trauma Puller still wants to serve and help his fellow man. His physical loss did not diminish the value of his life to society.
Puller made a conscious choice to do a lot with his life after Vietnam: 1. He became a lawyer. 2. He helped to organize and build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 3. He ran for Congress. 4. He served on clemency board that helped thousands of fugitive draft dodgers return to the U.S. from Canada- his feelings on this issue is one of the best parts of the book.
Puller’s story provided hope and a long overdue appreciation for Vietnam veterans. His story inspired thousands of wounded veterans from his war in Vietnam to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam.
Puller dared to go on after a savage wound where he lost half his body. He was grief-stricken and angry about the loss of his legs and hands, but he did something heroic by choosing to live.
I think Puller displayed the same steely courage of his father in the face of adversity.
There is a Greek ideal of “kleos”- the glory that comes from a warrior performing a heroic deed, often at the cost of his own life. Marines embody the ideal of “kleos”-self-service and sacrifice.
Pullers felt he made an honorable sacrifice for an unworthy cause. He felt cheated that his great sacrifice was never appreciated and written off by the indifferent public as meaningless.
For years after his physical “recovery” strangers, friends, and acquaintances were “put off” and “uncomfortable” by looking at Puller’s mangled body. This was a constant reminder to Puller how people felt about him and Vietnam.
This is truly a soldier’s greatest fear- for your sacrifice to be unappreciated and forgotten. A soldier can and will endure any hardship as long as he thinks the cause is worth it.
This was the real reason for Puller’s pain. Puller felt he had been tricked into throwing his life away for an uncaring country.
Puller’s second pain was emotional. He was the “fortunate son” of a legendary hero. Puller admired and deeply loved his father. For Puller, there was no other path than to become a Marine.
His wounds cut his military career short. Puller feels he let himself and his father down. His sense of disappointment and sorrow of what might have been haunts the book.
Puller’s grisly physical and traumatic emotional injuries were almost too large to be overcome in a single lifetime. In the end, Puller commits suicide. By that act, he became another casualty of the Vietnam War.
Puller’s book gave me hope. He struggled to find a new point of view which supports his “new” life and the sacrifices he made inspired me. Puller taught me to live beyond my injuries and my past.
Ironically, Puller’s closest he gets to peace is when he was recovering from another bout of alcoholism. While in Alcoholics Anonymous he sees that life is paradoxical. To be happy human beings must often learn to live with two contrasting viewpoints, to make a compromise of what we feel and what we think.
Puller is a fantastic writer. His voice is engaging and honest. It was a privilege to get inside the mind of such an intelligent, sensitive and caring man. He makes it easy to read about tough subjects (death, trauma, and depression).
His prose clear, accurate and most importantly honest. Puller never shies away from telling us about his life, the reasoning behind his actions, even the parts he is not proud of. His unflinching honesty gives the book authenticity and credibility.
I know what it is like to be the son of a powerful and legendary man. My father was a decorated war hero. My relationship with my dad and his early death has dominated my life, the same way it did Puller.
Nearly every decision I made in my life, either consciously or subconsciously, was a reaction to my father’s legacy. Like many dutiful sons, I only wanted to make my dad proud, the same as Puller.
I was blessed. As I got older, I realized there was no one was keeping score. All the decisions I made in my life, were mine and mine alone. My father loved me and was proud of me. He told me so many times.
I know that my father would have been proud of me no matter what I did with my life. I think he would have been most proud that I try to be a good husband and provider for my family.
My dad would have been very proud that I became a writer because it made me happy. He would have adored my wife, Muna.
Lewis B. Puller Jr.’s book taught me the value of a human life. That no matter what has happened to us we choose what our lives become by the choices we make. Our lives are the sum of the decisions we make.
I prayed for Puller after reading this amazing book. His story gave me a balm for my pain and some much-needed closure.
Thank you, Mr. Puller and God bless you. Your service and sacrifice inspired me to write more and to try harder. I hope you finally found the peace that eluded you in life.
How did I learn to cope with my life-changing injuries after getting blown up, twice?
“You are a success when you have made friends with your past, are focused on the present, and are optimistic about your future.” – Zig Ziglar
Zig Ziglar’s inspirational message of hope saved my life. I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and chronic pain. I served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an infantryman.
“I learned some very valuable lessons in war: War is a nightmare. War is awful. It is indifferent, devastating and evil. War is hell. But war is also an incredible teacher, a cruel teacher. And it teaches you lessons that you will not forget. In war, I saw humanity at its worst, but also at its best.”
– Jocko Willink
One morning, in September 2008 my world literally exploded. There was no sound, just a rush of air and heat. There were five men in my truck. Three brave men died. I awoke amazed to find myself alive, but my life was forever changed. I was over my physical injuries in a couple of months. It took me years to realize that my brain was not getting better.
Making Things Worse
I made terrible and life-changing decisions. I started drinking. I dated the wrong women. I didn’t want to deal with what had happened. My situation got worse. I knew that if I opened my Pandora’s Box of issues, I might not be able to close it. And I may not be able to deal with the things that come out.
I had to accept my old life was over. I didn’t feel like a good leader or even a whole man being back home. I spent a few years feeling completely out of place. I pretty much stayed away from people. I felt my life slipping away. I could walk, talk and move, but nothing seemed to be going right. I realized that what I was trying to do myself just wasn’t working.
Having TBI is like a stroke on steroids. I had a ringside seat to my own destruction. Over the years I watched as my brain functions shut down one by one: motion, speech, memory, and self-awareness … I have many pragmatic deficits because of my TBI. I am hyper verbose- I talk too much. I became tangential- I can’t keep track of a topic.
Before the injury, I could connect the dots. After the explosion, I would hit one dot, skip a dot and see a dot way out in the distance. I have difficulty concentrating, keeping track of time and memorizing names. I spent eight years recovering my ability to think, walk and talk. In my case, although the explosion damaged the left side of my brain, my recovery unleashed a torrent of creative energy from my right. I started writing.
Potential and Possibility
The Polytrauma team at the Indianapolis Veteran’s Hospital made a difference in my life. It allowed me to look back at my life. To look at the good and bad experiences, to allow me to grow and to learn from what I’ve seen and done.
I know that war is life’s severest school. I also know those who experience war, endure it, and thrive in it have the ability to return home. I found out that if you are willing to learn and grow, you can be successful. If you don’t, you won’t be.
The Polytrauma unit used an interdisciplinary team approach. With cognitive and speech therapy I slowly began to rebuild my brain to reconnect the connections it made before I was injured.
During therapy, we practiced scenarios using an “artificial reality.” We practiced talking to strangers, withdrawing and managing money. We practiced scenarios to put our new coping skills to use. We were in a safe and secure environment to get better. The Polytrauma unit gave me a new lease on life. It was an important part of my reintegration and socialization into normal life. I was free from the shame of my disabilities. I recognized I was not in this alone.
My injuries weren’t just TBI. I had multiple injuries both skeletal and emotional. Multiple parts of my body system were impaired and injured from the explosion. In three tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, I was exposed to a dozen explosions- two of those were massive roadside bombs that injured and killed other soldiers. I got at least ten concussions in those three years.
The area of my brain where my memory and attention are centered were injured. The part of the brain that relays functions became impaired- one part of my brain didn’t talk to the other part of my brain. I could recognize objects, but I couldn’t name them. I would recognize people, but I couldn’t tell you where I knew them from.
I had to develop new strategies and coping skills to keep myself on track. This allowed me to compensate in areas where I was weak. Going to the polytrauma program allowed me to go back to school. It gave me time to reflect, to remember and to leave it there. I had a new family, a family of disabled veterans just like me.
Enter Zig Ziglar
The first time I listened to Zig I was hooked. Zig was the most interesting speaker I ever heard. His message of success was simple and positive. I was spellbound with enthusiasm. The more I listened and read the more motivated became. I found myself happy, motivated and ready to conquer the world. Zig’s message of positivity and personal achievement was a summary of all the positive stuff I had learned in the Polytrauma unit.
I know the Lord put Zig in my life for a reason. I am excited and anxious to share with you what a positive impact Zig’s message has had on my life. His “system of success” has renowned my commitment to God, my family and made me try to be a best man I can be.
The Polytrauma unit taught me that life is more than a physical challenge, it’s the realization that their goals are achievable, one step at a time. I want to become a spokesperson for TBI recovery and for the possibility of coming back from brain injury stronger than before. I want to my experiences with PTSD, TBI and chronic pain to offer a message of hope for others struggling with these life-changing issues.
With Zig’s message I was reminded that my past is not my prologue. Attitude makes all the difference. I am grateful that I am alive and have continued to thrive. I made friends with my past, I am focused on the present with my wonderful wife and my beloved grandson Jack, and I am more optimistic about my future than I have ever been!