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A soldier leaves a last message of love

Two brothers head to war in Iraq, but only one would return. NBC's Rob Stafford reports on the gift the soldier left behind -- a video he secretly recorded just for his family.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

In times of war, military families make extraordinary sacrifices. And no one knows that better than the Salie family. Its men have served in every conflict since World War II, living to tell the tale each time.

Recently the family sent two brave brothers off to Iraq, praying the good luck would hold. But fate wouldn't be so kind this time, and the Salie family was about to discover what one of their own would give for his country, and the unexpected gift he would give to them.

Two brothers, both soldiers, joking in front of their relatives, the day before a deployment for dangerous duty in Iraq. They don't know it yet but this is the beginning of the most powerful chapter in their family’s long history of patriotism and courage.

David Salie, 34, joined the Army right out of high school and made a career as a non-commissioned officer serving in Panama, Haiti and the first Gulf war. 

Younger brother Brian, 30, went to West Point and served in the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Military service has been a family tradition for three generations.

"I'm very, very, very proud of them two boys, I’ll tell ya," says grandfather Leonard.

Leonard Sallie survived bloody battles in both World War II and the Korean War. He says even as young boys his grandsons seemed destined to become soldiers.

"They'd pitch their pup tent out there in the woods and stay there all night, playing Army and shoot at each other with bee-bee guns,” he says.

The boys’ father, Jim, did two tours in Vietnam and retired as a Lt. Colonel after the first Gulf war. He too knew early that at the very least his very least his first born son David would wear a uniform. 

The family's intense patriotism grew even stronger after 9/11. The Salies steadfastly support the war on terror and the fight in Iraq.

Younger brother, Brian, had logged five years in the service and as the war in Iraq began, he was out of the Army in the Reserves and out of harm’s way. That did not stop him from volunteering to fight in Iraq last summer.

Older brother David was also out of harm’s way, working as a paratrooper instructor at Fort Benning. But last fall as the war intensified, he too decided to volunteer for a unit he knew was going to war — to leave the safety of his teaching job and his wife, Deanna, and the children he loved.

Sgt. David Salie's resolve was unshaken. Last January, he and his men were ready to go to Iraq. But his confident face masked disturbing feelings.

As David made his last preparations to go he secretly left something behind that would tell a story of commitment and courage. Then in January, he shipped out, joining his younger brother Brian, who was already in Iraq.

With two sons at war, every casualty report worried dad, Jim Salie. But for reasons he couldn't explain, on Valentine’s Day this year he was especially concerned about the news from Iraq.

The story of that February day in Iraq began as brothers David and Brian headed out on separate missions in their Humvees — vehicles so often targeted by insurgents.

Younger brother Brian was traveling down a road in Baghdad, older brother David was in Baquba, 50 miles to the north. Then without warning, there was an explosion.

The Salie family, which had served in and survived every war the United States had fought in since Pearl Harbor, got the news every family fears. But they were shocked to hear it was not the inexperienced younger brother Brian, but older brother, David, larger than life, the seasoned combat veteran, who was killed instantly by a roadside bomb. Brian remembers being safely back at his base in Iraq when he got word.

At Fort Benning, Georgia, David's wife Deanna heard a knock at the door.

Brian escorted his older brother’s body back from Iraq for the funeral at Fort Benning, not far from the place where they played Army as kids. He fought to keep his composure as he presented the American flag to his brother's widow, Deanna.

Brian Salie said: "It is my distinct honor to present this flag to you in recognition of Sgt. Salie, your husband, my brother, and my parents’ first born son, for his faithful service to this nation."

After David's death, Deanna couldn't stop thinking about the disturbing conversation she had with her husband shortly before he shipped out to Iraq. At the time she dismissed it as pre-war jitters, but now it haunted her.

An eerie premonition that caused a hardened soldier to make sure his family knew how much they meant to him and how right he felt about what he was doing, even in the face of death. David was gone, but it turned out his memory lived on through an extraordinary gift he left behind.

The night before David left, in a room by himself, he secretly recorded video messages for his family to be locked away and viewed only if he died.

On the videotape, he said:

David was acutely aware of the pain his death would inflict on his wife and children.

David's message from the grave made what happened next all the more challenging. Under the Army's sole survivor policy, Brian could choose to do his service back home near his family. And his 5-year-old daughter made it clear that was exactly what she wanted him to do.

His decision was clear: He would return to Iraq. Two brothers born to serve — and one was still fighting. The other's legacy lived on through the words they shared.

"Return with honor" Brian did. He recently completed his tour in Iraq and is back home with his family. After enjoying a well earned vacation, he returned to his old civilian job last week. Despite all that happened, he says, he is grateful he got to serve.