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Remembering Marine Sgt. Oscar Canon, A 'Superstar'

Marine Sgt. Oscar Canon, and the tattered hat he was wearing the day he was injured.
Joseph Shapiro
Marine Sgt. Oscar Canon, and the tattered hat he was wearing the day he was injured.

After the explosion of the rocket-propelled grenade on a road in Fallujah, Oscar Canon saw the white of his own thigh bone. At the medical unit, the young Marine sergeant grabbed the doctor by his collar and yelled, "Don't cut off my f***ing leg." That was in October of 2004 and the first of dozens of surgeries — 72 separate operations, by a family member's count — that saved his leg.

Last week, Staff Sgt. Oscar Canon, 29, died. A Marine Corps spokesman at Camp Pendleton says the death is still being investigated.

But family and friends say his leg got infected — which is not unusual after an operation — and that after Canon drove himself to the hospital last week, he went into shock, or had a heart attack and ended up in a coma.

I met Canon at his home at Camp Pendleton in California in January of 2005 and followed his surgeries for most of that year. And I reported for Morning Edition about his attempt to save his leg (scroll down to the end of this post if you'd like to listen).

For more than 100 years, the standard was for doctors to amputate a badly damaged arm or leg. Think of Civil War surgeons at the battlefront wielding cleavers. In the decades since, the field of prosthetics has advanced. Prosthetic legs were once crude stumps of wood. Today, soldiers get legs powered by computer chips and made from materials used on spaceships.

For limb salvage, it's been less than 20 years since surgeons began to master complex ways to save a leg instead of amputating it. It involves closing wounds, fixing fractures, moving muscle, tissue and blood supply. The limb construction done for Canon was among some of the most extensive doctors anywhere had ever tried at the time.

Canon had a magnetic personality and drew in many people who became his advocates. Ed Eckenhoff, the founder and president emeritus of the National Rehabilitation Hospital, a private hospital in Washington, D.C., where Canon went for physical rehab, quickly befriended Canon. "He was a superstar at our place," says Eckenhoff, who as a college student was paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. "He couldn't work hard enough. He wanted as much therapy as anyone could throw at him. He wanted to be in therapy at 8 p.m. He was very interested in getting back to the theater."

At the time, it was almost unthinkable that a Marine with such a severe injury would go back to war. But Canon did. He returned to Iraq as a Special Forces instructor.

Canon's Facebook page shows him nuzzling his face into the neck of his young son, Elijah, now 18 months. Family members say he was involved in a bitter battle for full custody of the boy.

After so many surgeries, family members were shocked when Canon died after he went to the hospital for what they thought was a routine check of a persistent rash. Julian Canon says his nephew was optimistic after his last surgery at the turn of the year, and so was the rest of the family. "We were jumping up and down, [saying] 'Yeah, this is going to be the last operation. This is going to be great.' Then he goes to the hospital for a checkup, and he's in a coma," Julian Canon says softly. "A coma?"

There will be a memorial service for Canon next week in Oceanside, Calif., and family members say he'll be buried later at Arlington National Cemetery.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.