Every proverb has a purpose, yet every proverb has an exception.
Blood is stronger than water refers to strong blood ties connecting families, but for the “Four Horsemen” of the Vietnam War, the proverb extends to their deep friendships spanning more than five decades.
Larry Dunn, a Reno attorney who previously lived in Carson City, said between 1967-1969, four 19-year-old men enlisted in the U.S. Army rather than being subjected to Uncle Sam’s draft. For Dunn, Lou Solsbury, Bob Martin and Jim Saad, their friendship has guided them through both good and bad times, yet for 72 hours this month, they reflected on their time in the Army by participating in Honor Flight Nevada’s journey to Washington, D.C., to see monuments and memorials built in honor of the men and women who fought in the nation’s wars.
This was no ordinary Honor Flight for the 50 veterans representing three wars and their guardians. This flight included mostly Vietnam Vets traveling to the East Coast, and especially to the Vietnam Wall to remember their experiences but to also know the country has acknowledged their service and sacrifices more than 40 years after the war ended.
“I came up with the idea it would be a dream for the four of us to go,” Dunn said of their Honor Flight Nevada trip. “I downloaded the application, and we went to breakfast,” he recalled. “I handed the applications out, and I said if you don’t fill them out, I will never, ever buy you breakfast again.”
Saad, though, wasn’t too optimistic they would be selected for the Nov. 10-12 flight.
“If we’re lucky, we would get picked next year,” he said, “and here we are.”
Close friends display a camaraderie about them, an inherent swagger, and that was evident during this interview. Their bantering, their humor, their love to each other lent itself to a modified Abbot and Costello comedy routine except for when they became philosophical. Close friendships lasting almost a half century are rare.
Beginning the friendship
Dunn and Solsbury first knew each other in the mid-1960s when they attended high school together in Cherry Point, N.C. For a short period of time, Dunn moved to Carson City where he attended high school for about a year and then returned to Cherry Point.
“My first connection to Carson City was when my family moved there while my stepfather, a career Marine, was stationed in Japan in 1962-63 when I attended Carson High as a freshman.
That’s where Dunn met his future wife, Kathy, whom he married in 1968. Dunn said she graduated after completing all four years at Carson High School. Her mother, Margaret Lillo, was a longtime employee at the Nevada Appeal before ending her career at the Legislative Counsel Bureau.
Returning to Cherry Point for his final high-school years, Dunn and Solsbury graduated and eventually headed west to Carson City.
“It was a time of mandatory conscription, so when we got of high school, Lou came out to Carson City with me,” Dunn said. “We enlisted on the buddy system. We went to boot camp together at Fort Ord (California) in May 1967.”
Meanwhile, halfway across the nation, Martin, who resided in Bellevue, Ill., and Saad, who lived in Chicago, enlisted in the Army, reported to basic training and checked the box for Army Individualized Training (AIT) in the Army Security Agency, the same schooling Dunn and Solsbury wanted.
“They (the ASA) only accepted a certain level of IQ from the people they brought on,” Solsbury said at the induction center in San Francisco.
Solsbury figured he was a shoe-in to be assigned to ASA. While waiting on a bench, Solsbury learned Dunn was selected, instead, for the schooling that would train them as Morse Code interceptors. Five minutes passed before Solsbury stood up, walked to a door and knocked.
“Hey, wait a minute,” remember me?” Solsbury said to the soldier who informed Dunn of his acceptance. “You offered him the same job you offered me. This is the guy I was telling you about. My buddy.”
Solsbury said the soldier told them they were both eligible, and then announced one of them filling May’s quota, the other filling June’s. After graduating from boot camp at Fort Ord, they reported to Fort Devens, Mass., about an hour drive west of Boston. They met Saad, who was also taking courses for the same military occupational specialty (MOS).
“Lou was assigned to headquarters in Washington, D.C. right down from Fort Myers and the main gate,” Dunn said after they received their first assignments. “I was engaged at the time, but I told my fiancé that if I get orders to Vietnam, I won’t marry her until I get back, and if I get orders to somewhere else, we can get married before I go.”
Dunn received orders to Japan as did Saad, so Dunn and Kathy married.
“We hurried to get our plans ready,” Dunn remembered. “Lou was my best man, and in March, Kathy and I will be married 50 years.”
Dunn said Saad and he became good friends while in Japan, but after a year together, Saad received orders for Vietnam as did Solsbury. Saad finished his tour and returned to Japan before Dunn received orders to return stateside to Vint Hill Farms Station, a United States Army and National Security Agency signals intelligence and electronic warfare facility near Warrenton, 47 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. It was there Dunn met Martin, who had completed rehabilitation from being wounded in his leg from shrapnel in Vietnam on Aug. 30, 1970.
“He was medevaced in a chopper,” as Saad remembered the incident. “The worse part of the chopper flight was all the screaming, yelling and crying, but the medics did their best to shut Bob up, but he couldn’t stop.”
More laughter roared around the table with Dunn shaking his head.
“I was in Japan and sent to Japan for rehabilitation,” said Martin, who received a Purple Heart. “They put a light cast on my leg. Once they got me stabled, I was sent back to the states to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital (near North Chicago) and to get as close to Bellevue where my wife was.”
“Is that where they had the mental hospital?” Saad quipped.
“See why we don’t let the other two out?” Solsbury sarcastically joked.
Leaving the Army
While at Vint Hill Farms, Dunn and Martin both decided to begin a rock band called “Catch the Wind,” the first of several groups. With their enlistments nearing an end, Saad returned to Chicago in 1971, and Lou began his own Odyssey by hitchhiking around the country, also in the same year. Martin left the Army the following year but stayed in Vint Hill Farms, and Dunn competed his six-year obligation in 1973. When Dunn received his discharge, both he and Martin drove to Nevada.
“When I got out of the service, Bob and I were going to start a janitorial service,” Dunn said, with the other two friends laughing.
With Solsbury’s journeys taking him to Nevada, Saad packed his belongings and headed to Nevada in the early 1980s.
While Dunn and Martin worked in the janitorial service, they all began playing together in the same band with Dunn being the only married musician. His buddies felt frustration for not being able to play on the road.
“The band was going to fire me if we didn’t go on the road,” Dunn said, proclaiming “I was the one who founded the band.”
Dunn said he and Kathy decided we wouldn’t go on the road. Eventually she wanted her husband to “get a real job.”
“The wife said, “What do you want to be when you grow up,’” repeated Dunn, retelling of her ultimatum.
Dunn didn’t want to be a doctor, but law appealed to him. He attended Western Nevada College in Carson City for two years and then entered the University of Nevada, Reno in 1977 and finally McGeorge Law School in Sacramento, Calif. When Saad moved west, the Dunns allowed him to stay at their house until he could find a place of his own.
The bantering began about his time with the Dunns.
“I remember many mornings when I would wake up. Larry was at the dining room table with his face buried in a law book, and I mean buried,” he said. “Then he would wake up with yellow highlight marks across his face.”
Now facing their 70s, Solsbury was an investigator for Dunn for 15 years, Martin still works full time, now with West Care by helping veterans, and Saad retired from the Sonoma Sheriff’s Dept., in 2007 where he was a deputy. Retirement fits well for Solsbury or so he describes, tongue in cheek.
“I get up in the morning, take a shower and then make a bloody Mary, pick up a jelly donut and turn on Sponge Bob,” he said.
The other three moaned after Solsbury finished his exaggerated description of a morning routine.
Dunn, though, repositioned himself in his chair, leaned forward and became serious about their friendship and what Honor Flight means to them. At every stop, they stayed close to one another, helping push wheelchairs for Martin and Saad, who permanently injured his leg in a motorcycle accident.
“The success of life is something to be shared. If you go to San Francisco and look at the bay and watch the tide coming in, if you have no one to share it with, it’s only half as good,” Dunn explained. “Success is to be shared, experience is to be shared. It’s so much more meaningful to share this with the guys rather to come back (to Reno) and tell them.”
Their thoughts turned to country and service.
“What impacted me the most about this,” Solsbury said of enlisting in the Army. “We all knew we were doing the right thing.”
Even to this day, the three friends who served in Vietnam support each other. For example, since Dunn served in Japan but not Vietnam, a war zone, he’s ineligible to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars although the other three are. They will not join since Dunn can’t.
“About him not having boots on the ground in the country, we never belittled Larry for that,” Saad pointed out. “I don’t want anyone to think that Larry’s contributions for the Vietnam War effort were anything less than what we did. What he did was just as important, just as serious and just as critical.”
Solsbury broke the mood with a quick interjection.
“Had he been there we would have lost that war sooner,” he joked.
More moans, some laughter
Solsbury, though, retains some bewilderment at the way returning Vietnam veterans were treated when coming home. To this day, he wonders if those feelings were ones of resentment, anger or ignorance.
“We were young men, and we did what we thought was right by following the call of the country,” he added.
The mood returned to its seriousness.
“For one I think this has been the experience of a lifetime for me especially to go on this with my three brothers,” Saad said. “To me with all these other veterans, and these World War II veterans … like Charley … has been one of the highpoints of going to the memorials.”
Charles “Charley” Montanaro was the oldest Honor Flight passenger. The 96-year-old Carson City resident served in the Merchant Marine in the Pacific theater.
“I was so touched by the generosity of people and being able to come here,” Martin said. “I couldn’t fathom the thought I was going to the Vietnam Wall… it was just unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve been that emotional listening to three people up there talking about specifics.”