Saturday, July 05, 2003

Lance Cpl. Blair  

Many of the pictures showed the humvees that he and his unit lived in during most of their time in the desert. With a rotating missile turret perched on the rear of the vehicle and a heavy fifty-caliber machine gun attached to its side, the vehicles were designed to help provide a defense against attack from low-flying aircraft.
“I’m a stringer gunner. We shoot down low-altitude aircraft, but there was no air threat out there. So we were basically grunts,” Cannon said. “We were grunts with vehicles.”
On the night of March 20, Cannon’s regiment waited just south of the border with Kuwait as missiles flew overhead, and on the 21st his unit crossed the line of departure, remaining in Iraq until May 4.
Spending two weeks in An Nasiriyah and time in Al Kut, his unit was deployed to areas that confronted the American military with persistent resistance. One member of the unit was wounded and one killed in action just two days after crossing over into Iraq.
The single casualty came in An Nasiriyah. Mistakenly targeted by friendly fire, one of his unit’s vehicles was attacked by an American A-10 aircraft flying overhead. Both the men in the truck jumped out and ran from the misdirected American attack.
Lance Cpl. Blair was missing in action for two days before troops found his body, killed by bullets from an Iraqi Kalashnikov, Cannon said.
“He was the first LAD (low-altitude defense) gunner ever to die in combat,” Cannon said. “They named an airfield for him in Iraq. It’s called Blair Field.”
He described nights spent in holes dug with a folding entrenching tool, while enemy fire whizzed over their heads and functioning on no more than four hours of sleep.
While attached to a rifle platoon in Al Kut, Cannon said, “We got fired at from across the river just about every night.”
The reality of the armed conflict in Iraq ran contrary to what Cannon had expected to face as a young Marine. “I didn’t think it was anything like it was,” he said.
In a scenario closer to the first Gulf War, he imagined a heavy air offensive that was going to pave the way for a more antiseptic ground assault. “It was more ground fighting than anything else,” Cannon said. “There was constantly something going on over there. There was never a sign of peace.”
Faced with frequent incoming fire, he said he developed an attitude of resignation and eventually became numb to the bullets aimed in his direction. “ After a while, you just ignore it. If you get hit with one, you get hit with one. You just stop caring,” he said.
Now sitting in his parent’s house surrounded by family and having spent the past night in his own bed, the war has been brought into stark relief, the two incongruous worlds brought together.
“I’ll have dreams that I’m home, but I’ll be in full uniform, and my family is here. But I look again, and they’re gone. Then I look outside, and there’s a war going on,” he said.
It is his family, though, that helps him let go of the past few months and the things he has seen. “It was hard going through what I went through,” Cannon said. “I have a little kid now and that helps me get through a lot of the stuff I’m going through right now.”
“I don’t take anything for granted,” he said.
While Cannon readjusts to a life away from a war zone, his family all seem to glow with pride.
Still holding her grandson in her arms, Davis, a former member of the Air Force and now with the Army National Guard, recalls when her only son enlisted.
“I tried to convince him to go into the Air Force but he said he wanted to join the Marines because they’re the first into combat, and he said he wanted the challenge,” she said. “He’s my hero definitely. For him to choose the Marines and say he wanted the challenge, you don’t see men like that any more.”
Davis said when her son first learned he was coming home he called and said “Mama, I’ll never be the same person again. I left as a kid and I’m coming back as a man.” Looking at Cannon it’s hard to believe he is only 20 years old, and looking at Cannon it’s hard to believe that at 20 years old he is already a veteran.
When he leaves Sunday to return to Cherry Point, N.C., Melissa Shirley is going with him. The two plan to get married by the end of the month. “We were supposed to get the marriage license yesterday, but we were too late,” she said.


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