His Last Words

updated 07/10/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Steve Lieder was chatting with friends in White Lake, Wis., when he glanced at a pile of debris on the lakeshore—and the glint of glass caught his eye. "Look, a message in a bottle!" the 13-year-old told a nearby worker. Sure enough, when he got the small brown bottle open he discovered a message, scrawled in a childish hand: My name is Josh Baker. I am 10. If you find this put it on the news. The date is 4/16/95.

It was a stunning moment, for Lieder had known Baker—and known his sad fate. A native of White Lake, Baker had served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, then, in February of 2005, died from injuries in a car accident while on duty in California at age 20. Coincidentally, Lieder had come to the lake that afternoon with Baker's best friend, Robert Duncan, 25, who served with him in Iraq, so he ran to share his find. "He said, 'Trust me, you're going to want this,'" says Duncan.

Since then, the discovery of the simple message scrawled 11 years ago has buoyed the spirits of Baker's family and the town of 376 people on the shores of 5-acre White Lake, where Baker's death had hit hard. "He's telling us he's here, everything is all right," says his mother, Maggie Holbrook, 43, a mail carrier. She clearly recalls the week in 1995 when Josh and his sister Jessica, now 24, were studying time capsules in school and raided her kitchen, irritating her by dumping the contents of bottles to use for messages. "He was always doing stuff like that—full of life and energy," she says of her son.

A prankster and class clown who loved to fish and hunt, Josh Baker joined the Marines at 18, shipping off in February of 2004 to Iraq, where he survived house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, only to die after a Marine friend lost control of a car in which Josh was riding. Josh's family spread his ashes in the hills outside town. A year later, they are grateful to have another memento of the boy who had loved growing up by the lake. "The message," says Holbrook, "surfaced at just the right time."

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