Lynn Salvo reacts to receiving her brother’s wedding ring Tuesday at the Everett United Church of Christ. Her brother died in Vietnam. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lynn Salvo reacts to receiving her brother’s wedding ring Tuesday at the Everett United Church of Christ. Her brother died in Vietnam. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A wedding ring and a bicycle journey close a circle of grief

Fifty years after a joyful wedding, the sister of a fallen soldier and the sister of his bride meet to pay tribute.

EVERETT — The tears came unexpectedly Tuesday for Lynn Salvo on the steps to the altar at United Church of Christ.

In that sanctuary over five decades earlier, when it was called First Congregational Church, her brother, John West, married Donna Solle, a young woman from Everett.

“I’m so overwhelmed by it,” said Salvo, fresh off a bike ride from Anacortes. “It’s like I’m with my brother a little bit.”

Next to her stood Solle’s sister, Anne Stearns, holding West’s wedding ring, which he left with his new wife before deploying to the Vietnam War as a U.S. Air Force pilot. He never returned.

This was the most personal stop of what Salvo hopes will be her third Guinness World Record bike ride of nearly 1,500 miles, from Blaine to San Diego. If she completes it, the three treks will make a jagged peace symbol as seen on a map. Salvo expects to finish the ride Oct. 18 at age 72.

Salvo was in Everett so Stearns could give her the ring at the church where, decades earlier, their siblings married after a whirlwind romance cut short by tragedy. Stearns had kept the ring since her sister’s death. Parting with it made her cry, too.

John West’s wedding band and a photograph of Donna and John West on their wedding day. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

John West’s wedding band and a photograph of Donna and John West on their wedding day. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Stearns, 72, was her sister’s maid of honor on March 29, 1969. Steve Stearns, her boyfriend at the time and now her husband of almost 51 years, filled in as West’s best man.

“We just got to meet John, then they got married,” Anne Stearns said earlier at their north Everett home, near where she and her sister were raised.

Donna West, who died in 1998 after living with multiple sclerosis, wrote letters to her husband every day he was deployed in Vietnam, Stearns recalled. He often wrote back, as well as to his parents and siblings, and even to the Solles’ father, Don.

Stearns shared a letter to her father, postmarked Dec. 14, 1969, just a few weeks before West’s plane took fire and crashed.

“Pretty soon I’ll have to call you ‘Grampa,’” West said in the nine-page letter. He wrote about feeling lonely without Donna and excited to be a father, and illustrated the dangers of the war with a story about his plane taking damage on a mission in Laos.

On Jan. 2, 1970, U.S. Air Force Capt. John West’s plane was shot down. He was declared missing in action. Later, he was added to the war’s list of 58,281 U.S. military deaths and a high estimate of 3.4 million total casualties.

Brenda Mueller (left) and Lynn Salvo arrive at the Everett United Church of Christ. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Brenda Mueller (left) and Lynn Salvo arrive at the Everett United Church of Christ. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Anne Stearns remembers the day. She said her mother answered a knock at the door to find men in military uniforms, then called Donna down and told her the tragic news.

“‘John is gone,’” Stearns recalled her mother saying. Donna “just shrieked. It was awful.”

Across the country, Salvo was in college when her older brother was in southeast Asia.

“He never got to meet his child,” Salvo said.

At the time, Donna West was four months pregnant. The Solle sisters drove to an antique store in Oso where Donna bought a 100-year-old wooden cradle. It was a momentary way to set aside their grief and put their minds to something else, Stearns said.

But it came back when John West’s possessions were delivered to the family home, Stearns said. He had left his wedding ring with Donna when he deployed, and she kept it on a gold chain around her neck for years before leaving it with Stearns.

Stearns kept the simple gold band in a pouch, along with a pair of Red Cross pins her sister got while serving after graduating from the University of Washington. When other keepsakes were lost during a few moves, the pins and ring were still with her, mementos of Donna and John’s tragically brief time together and the life they didn’t have.

“The thought of getting rid of it was really hard because I made this commitment to Donna that I would hold onto it forever,” Stearns said.

The family’s grief persisted for years, in part because of the uncertainty of John West’s status. For a time, they hoped he was a prisoner of war because his body was never found.

Lynn Salvo takes a call after arriving at the Everett United Church of Christ Tuesday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lynn Salvo takes a call after arriving at the Everett United Church of Christ Tuesday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“It’s a story that way, way, way too many families have,” Salvo said.

The Wests’ son, John Brothers, is 51 today and a software architect in Roswell, Georgia, about 22 miles north of Atlanta. He has the last name of his adopted father, whom Donna West married and later divorced. Growing up, the family didn’t have many memorials or tributes to his birth father.

“The only thing that sort of symbolizes him and our remembrances of him is the wall,” Brothers said, referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial bearing the names of military members who died in the war.

Salvo has visited the site several times, most recently on Memorial Day this year. But immediately after her brother’s presumed death, the West family didn’t regularly gather to celebrate, mourn or remember.

“There’s definitely been this hole in the family,” she said.

After retiring from a career in education and selling her summer math camp business on the East Coast, Salvo started cycling with the intent of building up to multi-day trips.

Back then she would do one 100-mile trip a year. These days, she pedals a few of those every week.

A copy of a letter from John West to Donna West’s father, written just weeks before John West’s plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A copy of a letter from John West to Donna West’s father, written just weeks before John West’s plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Her first cross-country ride, in 2015, was from Long Beach, California, to Florida. When she stopped at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, a blank wall for people who will die in future battles stunned her.

On other trips, she has met people who share a similar grief. It spurred her to promote peace on her cross-country treks.

Salvo’s first world record was set Oct. 23, 2016, when she became the oldest woman to cross America by bike at 67. She set the second for a similar feat across Canada on Aug. 26, 2018.

For this record attempt, she brought her Cannondale from her home in McLean, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.

“Most of these legs, she’s talked about it and talked about my father as why she’s doing it,” Brothers said. “That’s very touching, as well.”

At the altar Wednesday, Salvo — eager to rest after a long, circuitous route that included a missed turn and a long detour through Lake Stevens — clutched the gold band at her neck.

“He’ll come with me all the way,” she said.

Ben Watanabe: bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.

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