11/28/04 — Soldier thanks students for letters

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Soldier thanks students for letters

By Sam Atkins
Published in News on November 28, 2004 2:06 AM

A shipment of letters arrived in Kirkush, Iraq, and soldiers anxiously opened them. A smile came to their faces as they read about family and friends back home and, for a moment, their fears and worries faded away.

For Sgt. John Wesley Cannon with the U.S. Army National Guard, one letter from a seventh-grader stood out.

Jessica Price, 13, a student at Norwayne Middle School in Wayne County, wrote about her school activities and wished him a safe trip home. Her class started writing letters as a group, but she decided to send him one of her own.

"I wanted to help him get his mind off of everything there," said Jessica.

The time came for Cannon to come home for two weeks of rest after an 11-month deployment, and he decided to thank the students for their letters. So on Tuesday, he made a surprise visit to the school.

"I was really excited when I heard he was coming," said Jessica.

Cannon told the students it was like Christmas time when the letters came. He also passed them on to other soldiers to read.

He hugged Jessica and gave her a teddy bear with an American flag on it and some pictures he had taken in Iraq. He told the students a little about his service, showed them some things he gathered from overseas like an Iraqi newspaper, and gave them all a combat and brigade patch.

Cannon, the son of Allen and Rose Cannon of Goldsboro, entered the National Guard five years ago while working for Lowe's Home Improvement Store, where he is now a manager. He is based in Mount Olive as part of the Headquarters Company of the 30th Heavy Separate Brigade.

The brigade, which was ordered to active duty on Oct. 1, 2003, is based in Clinton and has armories from Wilmington to Charlotte. It also includes soldiers from other states.

The 5,000-member brigade deployed in February and March. Its members have been responsible for security and other duties in an area northeast of Baghdad. It was the largest call-up of N.C. National Guard soldiers since World War II, and the brigade was the first full National Guard combat brigade activated and deployed for service in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

They endured three weeks of training in June 2003 in over 110-degree heat at the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin, Calif. They left for Fort Bragg that October and went through a federal mobilization process in November. They then traveled to Fort Polk in Louisiana to go through a rehearsal exercise. They returned to Fort Bragg to make final preparations to deploy.

Cannon is part of the only military police unit in the brigade. He has a variety of duties, including conducting convoy security, transporting money to help rebuild factories, escorting high-ranking military personnel, making sure all of the border stations are running smoothly, heading up a prison in Kirkush, doing customs patrols to make sure U.S. soldiers do not leave the country with any contraband, and helping train the new Iraq army.

He said the soldiers were well-trained for their mission and that being in the Mojave Desert last summer helped them get used to the environment. Temperatures in Iraq reached 150 degrees in August. It has since cooled down to around 85 degrees.

When he first arrived in Kirkush, he stayed out in the open in his Humvee for about a week and then moved to the new Iraqi army buildings. He then lived with three other soldiers in a "chu," which is made of metal and resembles a small mobile home.

He washes his clothes in a bucket and carries about 100 pounds of gear, including an M-16, grenade launcher, bullet-proof vest, night-vision goggles, helmet and gas mask.

Cannon is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He was given T-rations at first, but now eats in a dining facility when he is not out in the field. He eats MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, while on missions.

He said he had a lot of close calls. Fire came out of a village toward his convoy one day, but it was hard to fire back because they did not know where it came from.

Some of his fellow soldiers died while transferring prisoners, and some were almost killed by an improvised explosive device that detonated in front of their vehicle.

The vehicles are now armored with a bullet-proof shield on the bottom panels, side windows and windshields. There is still no protection on the bottom, he said.

Cannon said he has learned to speak Arabic and learned a lot about the Muslim religion and culture. He said he just wants people to know what is going on in Iraq and how U.S. soldiers are helping them establish their own government and economy.

He left for Iraq again on Friday to finish his deployment and hopes to be back home at the beginning of January. A replacement unit for the brigade has already started to arrive in Iraq.

Cannon said his base has 2,500 soldiers, and their moral is getting better because of the rumors that they will be coming home soon.

As Cannon left the children at Norwayne Middle School, he thanked them once again for their letters and encouraged them to continue writing.

"You guys do not know how much those letters mean," he told them. "They helped keep our heads up a little bit."