Friends, family say farewell to an American hero

FORT BENNING, Ga.—Family, friends and Army buddies of Sgt. 1st Class David J. Salie, a 34-year-old soldier from nearby Columbus, Ga., who was killed on Valentine's Day—his fourth day of duty in Iraq—said a final farewell to him Wednesday.

I was with them. Salie was a friend.

The old Infantry Post Chapel was filled with mourners. The commander of Fort Benning and the Infantry School, Brig. Gen. Ben Freakley, led the official party from the post and from Salie's unit, Bravo Company, 2/69 Armor, 3rd Infantry Division.

Before the funeral, Freakley gave Salie's widow, Deanna, posthumous awards of the Bronze Star, a second award of the Combat Infantry Badge and a Purple Heart that her husband had earned.

Salie had previous combat tours in Panama, the Persian Gulf War and Haiti. I met him in 1995 in the town of Mirabalais in Haiti. He was a lanky specialist fourth class in the 25th Infantry Division. I was a reporter with a Special Forces A team that was working with Salie's battalion.

We sat talking as we waited for commanders to begin a patrol in the highlands.

Salie told me a story. He jumped into Panama with the 82nd Airborne. His company was assigned to cover a street between two intersections that had American checkpoints.

A car came through a checkpoint and speeded up. No one got the word that it had been cleared. The whole company opened fire.

Salie could see the faces. A couple, rushing their daughter to a hospital to give birth. He yelled for the soldiers to cease fire, but it was too late.

It made him think long and hard about continuing to serve. In the end, he decided the right thing to do would be to stay in the Army so he eventually could teach soldiers how to avoid such deadly mistakes.

In Iraq, Salie's commander said that when he briefed about a difficult mission, he looked at Salie to see what the platoon sergeant thought. Salie's response was always, "I'm in."

In a farewell tape he left for his family to be viewed in case of his death, he told them that the mission in Iraq was one that was left unfinished in 1991, and that the people of Iraq deserved the same freedoms his family had. He said, "The price is worth it, in my heart."

At his memorial service, family members and fellow soldiers told stories celebrating the 6-foot-5 Salie's sense of humor, love of his children and love of soldiering. As they talked, the Salies' youngest son, Hunter, age 2, lay on the floor at the end of the front pew, looking up at the flag-covered coffin of his father.

Salie also had a daughter, Hailey, 12, by a previous marriage; Deanna's daughter, Chyna, 11, from a previous marriage, whom David Salie adopted; and Luke, 6.

Salie's casket was escorted home by his brother, Army Capt. Brian Salie, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, who's serving a combat tour in Iraq as well.

After a volley of gun salutes outside the chapel and the mournful sound of taps, an honor guard of sergeants folded the flag. Usually, Freakley presents the flag to the widow or mother. This time he handed that duty to Brian Salie, who carried the flag to Deanna Salie and handed it to her, thanking her on behalf of the president.

It was his last and most painful duty to the older brother "who was my hero all my life, and now he is an American hero as well."

Related stories from McClatchy DC