Eliseo “Al” Cantu, Jr., is a leader within the Texas Veterans community. He served for 20 years in the United States Army and since has given even more time to veterans across Texas and within Corpus Christi.
Cantu is the youngest child from a family of four older siblings and says he was a “pretty good kid”, attending Zavala Elementary and then Driscoll Middle School in Corpus Christi.
“I was the youngest so I got away with a lot of things,” Cantu said when discussing his childhood. “We were a humble family, didn’t have much but we never went to bed hungry. We always had plenty of beans, tortillas and potatoes.”
He joined the Army in 1958 less than a week after graduating from Corpus Christi’s Miller High School.
Commitment to a greater sense of service has never been a problem for Cantu. When he enlisted in the Army, the draft was still going on, but he was not going to wait around to be selected, choosing to volunteer instead.
“I looked at each branch and at that time, the Army had the buddy system already and the best options for me, so I was able to enlist with a good friend,” Cantu said.
He attended basic training at Fort Carson, Colorado, then his advanced individual training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, where he attained the radio operator military occupational specialty. Following his initial training, Cantu headed to South Korea for his first assignment. He would have follow-on assignments to Fort Hood, Texas, and then Germany before being selected in 1965 to attend Officer Candidate School.
Following Cantu’s graduation from OCS, he then deployed from 1967-1968 in support of operations in Vietnam.
During his time in country, he supported Army divisions with their communications operations needs throughout various base camps.
“We were there during the Tet Offensive, primarily establishing and improving communications for the base camps,” Cantu said of a time he does not like to talk about much. “Mortar fire and grenades did a lot of damage to overhead cable, so we had to repair those lines quite a bit.”
When he returned home from Vietnam, Cantu set his sights on leaving the Army. He was persuaded to make a different decision that paid off for him in the long run, as he was able to retire several years later at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1978 at the rank of Major.
Making the decision to “stay Army” was challenging for Cantu, though.
“I had the opportunity to attend the University of Tampa for two years and my follow-on assignment was to Germany or Fort Hood, so I chose Fort Hood so that I could move back to Texas with my family,” Cantu said. “Instead, the Army decided they would send me to Fort Bragg.”
He says going to Fort Bragg was not high on his interest list because it meant most likely having to go to airborne school. When he was given the choice of attending airborne school or be at the mercy of a randomly picked assignment, he took the time to think it over and decided he would accept the challenge to attend the rigorous school.
“I discussed the decision with my wife and as much as she didn’t like it, she knew I was going to do it. I told her I have to see if I have what it takes to jump out of an airplane,” Cantu says his wife Alma told him, “No you don’t. But if you go, you better not come back without having completed that school.”
“Airborne school was a challenge but it was a lot of fun, too. I even had an instructor I knew from another assignment. Of course, he was friendly before we crossed onto the school grounds and after that, he wasn’t so friendly.”
Cantu says he was in great shape then so that really helped him get through the course. That instructor made it hard on him, yet on graduation day he told Cantu he did a great job and exceeded his expectations.
The deciding factor for Cantu to retire was his ill mother. At 19 years of service, she told him she was very ill and wanted him home before she died. When his last year in the Army was complete he and his family were on their way back to Texas. His mother passed the following year.
He said he worked for Nueces County for a few years but knew his passion was supporting and aiding the veteran community in his hometown.
“I began to get involved by joining one of the local VFW chapters,” Cantu said. “I knew I could not let down the other veterans out there and wanted to do what I could to help out. Someone always had your “six” when you’re in uniform and we have to do the same when we come home.”
Today, Cantu is the chairman of the Texas Veterans Commission, one of the largest veterans support networks in the country. He was appointed to the position by the former Texas governor, Rick Perry. It is a six year commitment and one he feels is a great honor to help mold the commission into what it needs to be for the many veterans coming home today.
“Prior to Governor Perry leaving office, he asked me if I wanted to continue to serve the office so I told him sure, I would do a couple of more years,” Cantu said. “However, he appointed me to another six year term so I’ve got some time to go still.”
“The state of Texas is great in supporting veterans here and they have given us the opportunity to ensure that our veterans get the best treatment, advice, employment help, help with disability claims, and other general assistance,” Cantu said. “We strive every day to do better and I think we’ve done a good job but we have plenty to do.”
Cantu says homeless veterans are the number one veteran issue that pulls at his heart and he strongly feels it is unacceptable for any veteran to not have a home.
“What we do (taking care of veterans), we have to do it with honor. We do everything for the right reasons and expect to be treated the same way. You have to be passionate about what you do.”
He is also the chairman of the Corpus Christi Mayor’s Committee for Veteran Affairs. The committee helps to recognize and resolve local veteran’s issues, and organize and conduct patriotic ceremonies at locations in Corpus Christi.
Cantu will celebrate 57 years of marriage to Alma next year. They also have three children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
To explore information on the Texas Veterans Committee, visit http://www.tvc.texas.gov to include resources on veteran employment programs, healthcare, and more.
To learn more about the Corpus Christi Mayor’s Committee for Veteran Affairs, visit their page at http://www.facebook.com/Corpus-Christi-Mayors-Committee-for-Veterans-Affairs.