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Cannons Angels

Corbett veteran reunites with those who saved his life during Vietnam War


Three weeks after deploying into the Vietnam War, Ron Cannon stepped on a landmine. His leg was blown off and doctors expected him to die.

To put back the pieces of what happened that day and during his recovery, he’s tracked down the people who saved his life — his angels.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Rob Cannon,65, served in the Vietnam War. Three weeks into his deployment, he was injured when his platoon walked into a mind field in Chu Lai, Vietnam.April 21, 1968: Chu Lai, Vietnam, Hill 56

Cannon was 20 years old when he was drafted in July 1967 to serve his country in the Vietnam War.

An Oregon native raised in southeast Portland and a graduate of David Douglas High School, Cannon had plans to start a career in radio broadcasting. He only worked a few months at the KVAN station, before he received his draft notice.

Instead of going on air, he was packing ammo and explosives with a radio telephone on his back, and searching for the enemy with his recon platoon in the hills of Chu Lai, Vietnam.

Their mission was to snoop and tell: find the enemy and call in the jets to fly over and rain bombs and bullets on them.

April 21, 1968, is a day Cannon will never forget. His platoon was returning to Hill 56, a mole hill with a high vantage point.

In war, it’s not advised to visit the same place twice, Cannon said. As his unit was spreading out around the hill’s perimeter, he heard the booms.

Landmines exploded in every direction. “There’s no time to think,” Cannon said.

Cannon’s commanding officer was killed. His buddy from back home was hit by a “Bouncing Betty,” a spring-loaded mine that launches up and explodes at chest level.

Soldiers still standing were told to stay in place and wait for the dust off helicopters (air ambulance) to fly in and evacuate the injured.

Cannon remembers when the third rescue helicopter landed. Someone called down to him, told him to start coming up the hill.

“I took one step and... boom,” he said.

Though the explosion shot him 15 feet up into a tree and crashing down, Cannon said the adrenaline and shock set him in slow motion, into a different world.

When he hit the ground, “I could only see my left leg and a lot of shredded damage,” he said. From mid-calf down, his right leg was completely blown off. To let others know he was alive, he groaned.

He heard a fellow soldier from Alabama, Johnny Winn say, “Cannon, I’m coming to get you.”

Cannon remembers a silly and delusional comment he made to Winn, ending with “he tore my pants.”

Winn looked at him and said, “Cannon you never quit do you?”

“I’m the type who sees the silver lining in every cloud,” Cannon later said.

Cannon was on the fifth and final dust off helicopter to carry the wounded off Hill 56 that day.

Of the 23 soldiers in the platoon, three were killed and the remaining 20 were injured.

Lying on the floor of the helicopter, it’s doors agape, Cannon felt the cool wash of the blade spinning above him. A fellow soldier held his hand, keeping his lips moist with water.

“I looked beyond the helicopter blade and there were white puffy clouds like cotton balls, and I could see a hand reach out,” Cannon said. “I just knew I was so close.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - This April, Rob Cannon (left) re-unites with the helicopter pilot who saved his life, Charles Schenk, at a Vietnam Dust Off Association reunion in San Antionio, Texas.Cannon woke up in a second surgical hospital in Chu Lai.

Nurses had pumped him with 33 units of blood. The heel of the boot Cannon was wearing was still embedded in his left thigh. Despite multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel and the chunk of boot, a doctor gave him the prognosis: “I was not expected to survive,” he said.

It took a month for Cannon to get stable enough to fly home.

He was a solid 180 pounds when he left for the war. Coming home, he weighed 95 pounds.

Cannon called his injury the million dollar wound, a one-way ticket home.

“I survived it,” he said. “I had angels that were keeping me alive.”

Cannon never forgot the people who helped keep him alive in Vietnam, but losing so much blood, he also didn’t remember it all so clearly.

There were missing pieces and angels to track down and thank.

Since marrying his wife, Shirley, a woman he met at a Portland party after he returned from Vietnam, the two travel to Washington, D.C., every fifth anniversary of the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial Wall.

At one dinner party in the nation’s capital dedicated to the women’s portion of the memorial, Cannon and Shirley held up signs looking for nurses from the second search hospital where Cannon stayed.

“You saved my life. I want to meet you,” the signs read.

That night, two nurses walked up to confirm they were there with Cannon. One confirmed she had laid hands on him.

“We just grabbed each other and held on tight,” said Cannon. “It was one hell of a meeting.”

Nurses and medical records led Cannon to the doctor who had worked on him after his leg was blown off.

Dr. Robert First was practicing in Concord, Mass., and Cannon decided to make a surprise visit.

When he walked in the office, he held a copy of the dooming prognosis from the war.

Handing the doc the papers, Cannon said, “Can I get a second opinion?”

Startled and a little confused, First looked at the papers and back at Cannon, alive some 40 years later.

“My god... well, yeah!” he said.

Cannon was the only soldier who had followed up with First after all this time.

The two shared memories.

A cloud cleared over Cannon’s head.

It was First who had treated Ron Van Avery, Cannon’s buddy who never made it home. First told Cannon the “Bouncing Betty” had done severe damage to Van Avery and that he would not have survived.

First helped Cannon realize that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder does not stop at the battlefield.

“They have to play God,” said Cannon of the men and women of the medical field who serve. “They have to make de cisions on life or death.”

This year on April 11, a week before the anniversary of “when we got blown up,” Cannon flew to San Antonio, Texas, for a reunion dedicated to Vietnam dust pilots.

Cannon said he walked into a roomful of heroes and his jaw dropped.

“All of these dust off pilots went into harm’s way time and time again,” he said.

Those helicopters, “Hueys,” were the workhorses of Vietnam.

“If a Vietnam vet hears the “WAMP WAMP” of one of those birds,” he said, they will stop and tear up.

“That was a lifeline for Vietnam veterans,” said Cannon, “They were there when we needed them.”

In war at 20 years old, Cannon said he was young and impressionable.

“They put a high-powered weapon in your hand, and you think your invincible,” he said.

Cannon, 65, has spent his entire life and career working with veterans and disabled veterans, retiring in 2010 as the Oregon Director of Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS).

These days, he talks to high school kids about the ugliness of war.

“It’s not a game,” he tells them. “There is no reset button. No reset button for my buddy or my legs.”

Teachers love him, he said, especially when he startles smart-mouthed teens by sliding his prosthetic leg across the floor at them.

Cannon said the meetings and reunions he’s had with fellow veterans is an “awesome” experience.

“With the people who worked so hard to save lives, I just had to follow up with as many as I possibly could,” he said.

Cannon meets a group of Vietnam veterans and their wives at downtown Gresham’s Fourth Street Brewery at 4 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday.

“It helps so much to have groups like this,” said Cannon, who has three grown kids and lives in Corbett. “We support each other. We got each other’s six,” he said, referring to backs faced at the six o’clock position.

In war, when a soldier is down, we close ranks around him, said Cannon, the same way we close ranks around each other now.

Mutual respect for the veter ans transcends wars, he said.

Speaking of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, Cannon said, “We want to make sure they are not treated the same way we were treated upon their return home. A veteran, no matter what era, there’s a strong brother and sister (connection) there that you can’t cut through.”

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