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Home Safe For The Fourth — One Family's Wish Comes True

Iraqi war veteran visits family, pays tribute to the fallen.

From fighting fires in Syracuse, N.Y., to fighting Saddam Hussein's Elite Guard in the Iraqi desert, Lance Corporal Edward Nathan Shirley, USMC, will greet this July 4 with a new perspective.

This 22-year old native of upstate New York, was a member of the U.S. Marine Reserve's 8th Tank Battalion, Bravo Company, in his hometown of Tully, a Syracuse suburb, when he was activated at the beginning of 2003. That's when he became part of the Corps' active 2nd Tank Battalion, Delta Company, that pushed from Kuwait into Iraq on March 19.

This past Saturday night he was given a rousing welcome home party at the Mount Vernon residence of his aunt and uncle, Zorine and Craig Shirley. But earlier that day, the occasion was marked by a much more solemn ceremony at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

There, Nathan and other members of the Shirley family placed a wreath to honor his great uncle, Ellsworth Abbott "Barney" Shirley, USN Airman who died January, 1945, in the Pacific during World War II. It also honored fallen Syracuse firefighters Edward B. Shirley, Craig's father, and Edward J. Shirley, Nathan's father.

"I joined the Marine Reserve because of both the potential college incentive and because I wanted a real challenge. That's why I chose the toughest service," Shirley explained. "After that I became a firefighter."

Choosing tough assignments runs in the family. Both his grandfather and father were Syracuse firefighters. And his great uncle, "Barney," chose one of the most dangerous assignments in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

According to Craig Shirley, "Barney" was a radio operator on a TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bomber on board the USS Essex. They were "built for one thing: to get up close to Japanese ships, drop its torpedo and try [like hell] to get back safely to the carrier," he explained to the Syracuse Post Standard back in December 2001.

"If hit, only the pilot stood a chance of getting out alive; the two crewmen, strapped into the belly of the plane, had little hope, if any," Craig related. On the day of his death, Airman Shirley was not scheduled to fly but "had a chance to earn enough hours to make Airman First Class" that meant a $4 per month pay raise, according to Craig Shirley, a principal of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria.

"Though he volunteered for the mission, he was apprehensive as he gave away many of his personal effects" prior to takeoff, Craig pointed out. Upon sighting their targets, the plane came in at tree- top level, dropped their payload and headed back to the Essex.

Shirley's Avenger was hit by enemy fire and crashed in the jungle. His remains were not recovered until 1946. He had been initially buried in what was then known as French-Indochina.

AFTER REBURIAL in an American military cemetery in India, his body was finally returned and buried in Sayre, Pa, where his maternal grandmother lived, according to Craig Shirley. In 1977, Barney's mother had him re-interred in the family plot in Syracuse.

"It seemed to her that it was necessary for the father and his three boys to be together. Her youngest son, my father, a member of the Syracuse Fire Department, had died earlier that year from injuries sustained in a fire," Craig explained. "Barney" Shirley had been died on his 20th birthday.

Now, in January 2003, 58 years later, another Shirley was heading into harm's way. This time he was in the belly of a Marine Corps tank about as far from water and jungle as one can get. But, with all the sophistication of modern warfare it still just takes one bullet or one piece of shrapnel to nullify the technological advances made between Barney's and Nathan's wars.

After leaving Kuwait, Shirley's M1A1 Abrams tank, which carries a crew of four, traveled through Basra, up the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and into Bagdad. Lance Corporal Shirley's job was to make sure the tank's 120 mm cannon was loaded and man one of the its machine guns.

"At some point we expected there to be an armored battle but it never happened. The Air Force had taken out most of their tanks and others were abandoned. We saw a lot of burned out Iraqi armor," Shirley said.

"What was most surprising to most of us what the lack of resistance around Bagdad. We figured Saddam might write off a lot of the country but we were expecting a real fight for Bagdad. Again it just didn't happen," he related.

AS FOR THE USE of chemical/biological weapons, Shirley admitted, "We were somewhat concerned that they would use them. But, our protective gear is so good, even if they had, I don't think it would have been much of a challenge."

But his unit did not escape the blood of war. Two members were killed in a firefight in April and another died as a result of accidental friendly fire.

Shirley pointed out, "For the most part, once people realized why we were there, they were grateful for our presence."

However, he doesn't believe any more troops are necessary to maintain post war Iraq.

"Putting more troops in there now would only offer the opportunity for more attacks," he insisted. "Massive troops can't change the tactics of a guerrilla war. It's also unrealistic to expect the country to go from dictatorship to democracy overnight."

Shirley still has another year and a half on his six year reserve commitment. "If another conflict breaks out, I'm prepared to go again. Too many people got into the reserves thinking they would never have to go. Just get paid. They found out there's a catch," he said.

NOT ONE TO limit his options, Nathan bought AAA Exterminators, "The Critter Ridders," from his mother, Ellen, about a year before being activated. That was after following in the footsteps of his father, E. John Shirley, and grandfather, Lt. Edward B. Shirley, by joining the Syracuse Fire Department in September 2000. The business has been in the Shirley family for 65 years.

But, instead of spraying critters, Nathan found himself spraying machine gun rounds, while his mother and one brother Eric, 20, ran the business back home. His other brother Todd, 19, is preparing to enter college this fall, according to Nathan.

When asked if it was going to be Nathan, firefighter EMT, or Nathan, "Critter Ridder," he said, "I will definitely remain a firefighter. It's in the blood. But I'll also maintain the business. Many firefighters do both since we are on 48 hours and off for four days."

He also may have started his own family tradition by joining the Marine Corps. At the wreath laying ceremony was his 15-year-old cousin, Andrew, who will enter tenth grade at Mount Vernon High School this fall. As a member of the Marine R.O.T.C. program he was attired in his dress blues.

Arriving back on American soil on May 29, Shirley has relinquished his desert camouflage fatigues for the garments of the Syracuse Fire Department. He has traded his weapons of war for the tools of a life saving EMT. But, in either role he remains a "first responder."