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Bravery put to the test in Afghanistan

Never leave a fallen comrade behind. As an Army Ranger, Arin Canon believed that. In Afghanistan, the young man would demonstrate it.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002


SEMINOLE -- These were the deadliest hours of combat for American soldiers in a decade, and Staff Sgt. Arin Canon of Seminole was in the middle, leading his squad of Rangers up a mountain ridge in Afghanistan to rescue wounded buddies and to retrieve the dead.

Wearing heavy gear and trudging through knee-deep snow, the Rangers climbed 2,000 feet up a mountain while dodging enemy fire. Canon was helping to right a mission that had gone wrong, to improvise a way out of a double ambush.

It was his first time in combat.

During the 17-hour ordeal, seven Americans died, including 30-year-old Spc. Marc Anderson of Brandon. It was the highest number of combat deaths in a single day by any unit since 18 Rangers and Special Operations soldiers had been killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

Canon called his parents three days after the rescue mission. He told them he was part of the effort but said little more. Then came word of a two-part story in the Washington Post.

"It was his way of saying, 'Dad, this is what happened and I think you should read it,' " said Glenn Canon, who is 46.

Canon, 24, was not allowed to be interviewed by the Neighborhood Times about the rescue. "At least for the time being, we're not entertaining any additional stories on Operation Anaconda," said Maj. Gary Kolb, spokesman for the Army's Special Operations Command.

Canon is back in the States now and preparing to marry his girlfriend, also from Seminole, this month.

The riveting rescue story by Post reporter Bradley Graham was published May 24 and 25. It can be found by clicking the World page on the paper's Web site, www.washingtonpost.com.

"It's a story of how heroes are really made," said Catherine Creekmore of Largo, a friend of the Canon family. Based on the Washington Post account, here is the story of what happened on that ridge.

Under fire

It was March 4, and it was supposed to be just a reconnaissance mission. It was the third day of Operation Anaconda, a three-week-long offensive against members of al-Qaida and the Taliban in the Shahikot valley. As a group of Navy SEALs attempted to land on a ridge overlooking the valley, their helicopter came under attack.

Realizing the area was teeming with enemy soldiers, the pilot began lifting the severely damaged chopper off the ground. The SEALs tried to return for a petty officer who had fallen from the helicopter but were ambushed again.

Then two choppers filled with Army Rangers responded. Twenty soldiers, none with combat experience, took off from an air base about 100 miles to the north.

As one of the helicopters approached the landing site, it was chewed up by machine gun fire. Four Rangers were killed. Three air crew members were seriously wounded. The second copter, the one with Canon aboard, lost contact with the first one. They knew something was wrong, but they didn't know what.

A driving force

Kathryn Canon spent Christmas with her son before he headed to the war in Afghanistan, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom by the military. She knew her son was part of Operation Anaconda when news broke about the deadly battle.

Marc Anderson was a popular math teacher at Fort Myers Middle School Academy when he enlisted in 1998. He and Canon served in the same unit.

Canon's mother was heartbroken for Anderson's family. She had met the soldier when she visited her son in December at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.

After a funeral at St. Raphael's Catholic Church on Snell Isle, Anderson was buried March 11 at Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell.

The Post story laid out the extreme danger of the rescue mission.

"I was shocked that he had been such a driving force through it all," said Mrs. Canon, 43, who lives in Oldsmar and works for a car dealership in Clearwater.

"We would just call each other and cry and say look what he was in the middle of," said his father, Glenn Canon, who lives in Seminole and is a sales representative for a Clearwater lighting company.

Angela Sanders, Canon's girlfriend for 21/2 years, cried as well, worried about his safety. "I just know how good of a soldier he is," said Miss Sanders, a 1998 graduate of Seminole High who now works as a traffic director for six radio stations in the Savannah area. "He's always told me if it's his time, it's his time."

Never surrender

Canon, the ranking Ranger in the second chopper, knew something was wrong. The flight crew lost communication with the first Chinook helicopter, so they flew to a staging area and waited.

"At one point, I had a crew chief by the collar," Canon told the Post. "I'm screaming at him that regardless of what happened, the first bird only had 10 guys on it. That's the bare minimum package. If something happened to them, they need us. We complete the package."

And it was their duty, according to the Ranger creed. That is, never surrender and never leave a fallen comrade behind.

When word came that the other chopper had come under attack and was down, Canon and his men flew toward the ridgetop, the Post reports. They landed, thinking they were only about 300 yards from the stranded Rangers. When they got off the helicopter, they found out their comrades were 2,000 feet up the mountain.

At an altitude of 10,200 feet, they began the climb. "Just the grade of the ridge made it an unbearable walk, not including the altitude," Canon said in the Post story.

They dodged enemy mortar attacks. At times, the Rangers got down on their hands and knees for better traction. The Rangers' armor gear weighed 22 pounds. Most of the men carried an M-4 assault rifle, seven to 12 magazines of ammunition, two to four grenades, a pistol, knives, radios and more.

The soldiers became tired. The Post reports that Canon told them: "You need to get to the top of the hill, where we'll be in a static position and can rest. We've got to go. Our guys need us."

The Rangers began to remove their heavy clothes. Most also took off the back plate of their body armor, allowing better flexibility.

As the soldiers came over the final ridge, the Post reported, Canon saw the dead and wounded soldiers on the ground. It had taken the Rangers two hours to reach their buddies.

After a 15-minute assault, the soldiers made it to the downed chopper. But there were more enemy soldiers, who fired on the Rangers as they tried to recover their wounded and fallen comrades.

Navy F-14 fighter jets dropped a half-dozen 500-pound bombs to silence the enemy position. But the ridgetop was deemed too dangerous for a daytime rescue. So they waited until dark -- eight hours -- for four evacuation helicopters.

Glenn Canon said his son flew back to the United States with the fallen soldiers. "That was something that Arin felt he had to do, to come home with the bodies," he said.

Then he returned to Afghanistan.

Just a job

It was obvious from early on that Arin Canon was destined for the military.

When he was 5 years old he walked out of his bedroom, hands on his hips, and said: "Mommy, I'm going to be an Army guy."

Kathryn Canon told her son that was nice and suggested he go outside and pretend to be a soldier.

Realizing he wasn't being taken seriously, he responded: "No, Mommy, I'm really going to be an Army guy."

The oldest of three brothers, Arin Canon joined the Army as soon as he graduated from Osceola High School in 1996. "He just took to it like a duck to water," Glenn Canon said.

It wasn't long before he was selected for the Rangers, an elite group of soldiers who are trained for raiding and close combat.

Although Glenn Canon did not serve in the military, his father, Keith, spent 22 years in the Army before moving to Seminole. "It was my son's wishes to please his grandfather," Glenn Canon said.

Now back in the United States, Arin Canon is preparing for a mission of different sorts: his wedding. Miss Sanders, 22, said Canon proposed to her while he was in Afghanistan.

The couple, who have been friends since high school, will be married in a military-style wedding June 29 in Savannah.

There is talk of the soldiers on that ridge in March receiving medals, but nothing could be confirmed. "In my experience, that's usually a long process, but it very well could happen," said Chet Justice, of media relations for the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. None of that matters much to Canon.

"He just considers it a job," said Glenn Canon. "I consider him a hero."

-- Details of the battle are drawn from the Washington Post account.

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