FORT BENNING, Ga.—The Army said its farewell to Sgt. 1st Class David J. Salie here on Tuesday at his home post in his hometown of Columbus, Ga. It was filled with ritual and honors and the tears of friends and family.
Sgt. Salie was killed on Valentines Day in Iraq, just four days after he led the troops of the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2/69 Armor, 3rd Infantry Division into that country to begin a yearlong tour with his division.
The altar of the old Main Post Chapel was decorated for an Infantry soldier's funeral—a pair of combat boots standing before a rifle with bayonet fixed and a Kevlar helmet atop the rifle butt.
Midway through the memorial service a senior sergeant stood and called the roll, sounding off the names of three or four sergeants in the chapel who answered, "Present." Then he called out "Sergeant Salie." No answer.
"Sergeant David Salie." No answer. "Sergeant David J. Salie." The answer was weeping among the vast Salie clan in the front right pews.
The military coffin bearing Sgt. Salie home from Iraq arrived after the military service, escorted by David's brother, Army Capt. Brian Salie, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.
Perhaps the most poignant and moving words of the day were those spoken by Sgt. Salie himself. He had a strong feeling that his luck was running out, after 18 years in the Army and combat tours in the Persian Gulf War, Panama and Haiti.
So before he left the comfortable bungalow on sergeant's row on this military post, David Salie sat down and recorded a number of video CDs for his wife, children and parents.
Deanna Salie asked me to come to their home to view one that she felt was important to share with the American people. It was Sgt. Salie speaking from the heart.
There he was. Six-foot-five, 200 pounds. His captain described him as a "mountain of a man." Also "a gentle giant." Wearing a high and tight haircut befitting a sergeant of Infantry.
``Well,'' he said, ``this is the suck tape. If you are watching this one, then you know I won't be coming home.'' He told Deanna and the children that he knew it would hurt "but I will always be there with you."
He added that there were things left undone in Iraq the last time he was in that part of the world in the Gulf War and that he believed we had to go back if the people of Iraq were to have a better life and better opportunity like his family enjoys here.
"The price is worth it," Sgt. Salie said. "In my heart."
Deanna Salie said she agonized over releasing that tape but knew it was what her husband would have wanted. "We talked about this and agreed that we don't want this Iraq situation to turn into anything like Vietnam, where Americans turned against their own soldiers and their families."
It reminds us all that we need to be careful how we talk about the war in Iraq. Whether we approve or disapprove, we are obliged to cast the debate in terms that do not disparage the soldiers who risk everything serving our country, or cause pain to the widows and children who are left with an empty place in their hearts where a husband and a father once dwelled.
Sgt. First Class David J. Salie of Columbus, Ga., went to serve in Iraq because he believed the cost was worth it, even if part of the payment was his own life. He was 34 years old and had spent more than half his life in the Army. He was part of that tiny, tiny minority of less than 1 percent of Americans who wear the uniform and take the risks to protect and defend the rest of us. He had everything to live for, but gave it all up for his country and another country and people 7,000 miles away.
And while they are grieving the loss of one member, this large Salie clan and assorted in-laws in Georgia aren't giving up on a long heritage of military service. One mother proudly introduced her teen-age son who leaves this week for basic training at Fort Gordon, Ga., and then to medic training.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young