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'The ultimate leader’

Gatesville Army sergeant to retire after 20 years, six deployments

After more than 20 years of serving his country, Army Command Sergeant Major Raul Cantu will soon be hanging up his uniform for the last time.

Cantu — who graduated from Gatesville High School in 2000 — originally had no desire to ever join the Army. In fact, it wasn’t until after midterms in his first semester at the University of Texas at San Antonio that he realized he had a different calling in life.

"Coming from a small town and moving to a big city and then trying to work, and go to college, I just didn't have the maturity or the self-discipline to really be kind of successful in that environment," he said. "So, I just walked into a recruiter's office and kind of discussed some options, and in January of 2001, I was at Fort Benning, Georgia at basic training.”

Cantu joined the Army as an infantryman and within his first 18 months of enlistment, he was deployed to eastern Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom — one of two deployments he made in that operation.

“The mission of the infantry in the Army is to destroy the enemy through close combat on the battlefield, so at the time that I joined the Army, I was a paratrooper,” he explained. “I was in an airborne division, so we conducted static line parachute assaults onto airfields — anywhere around 1,000 feet for training is what we would do.”

From there, Cantu did two more deployments in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as a humanitarian mission in New Orleans, Louisianna after Hurricane Katrina.

Since June 2022, he has been in eastern Europe on his sixth — and last — deployment in support of Operation European Assure, Deter and Reinforce as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February.

For the last two years, he has served as the Command Sergeant Major for his unit of 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment “Blue Spaders,” 2nd Brigade Combat Team, and 101st Airborne Division.

Since his basic training began in January 2001, Cantu has served a total of 22 years in the Army.

But now, at 41, Cantu is ready to focus on what matters most to him — family.

Cantu met his wife, Mary — who is also a Texan — during his third deployment to Iraq. Together, they have two children: Alina, 13 and John, 11.

"My main reason for leaving is I want to invest in time with my family,” he said. “I just want to spend these last few years that we have the kids in the house with them and invest in time with my wife. Also, we move a lot in the Army, so I want my kids to be in one high school. If I stay in, there’s a good chance they would be in at least two, if not three, high schools.”

Cantu said his favorite part about the Army is the “team aspect,” and how close he is to several of his platoon mates. 

He also said he works with “some of the best,” including 1st Lieutenant and Battalion Logistics Officer Allan Watson, who coincidentally is also from Gatesville.

“During one of our newcomers' briefs when Allan came to the unit, I had mentioned that I'm a native Texan and we started talking and he said, ‘Where are you from?’ and I said, ‘Gatesville,’ and he said, ‘No way, I'm also from Gatesville,’” Cantu said. “He's only the second person that I've talked to face to face who is from Gatesville.”

Watson, 29, graduated from Gatesville High School in 2012, and has known Cantu for about two years now.

“CSM Raul Cantu has served as mentor to me as a young lieutenant for two years,” Watson stated in an email to the newspaper. “His leadership ability and knowledge of not only the infantry but the Army as a whole is something, in my opinion, worth acknowledging. His dedication to his craft and swiftness to teach soldiers on any subject, enlisted or commissioned, is a testament to his commitment to the profession.”

Watson went on to describe Cantu as being “extremely knowledgeable, incredibly smart, and a very rare leader.”

"He is somebody who, when I imagine a certain major, he is the embodiment of that,” Watson said. “He is somebody who leads from the front, and he is essential to our battalion. He is the ultimate leader, in my opinion, and being from the same town as him, I take pride in that."

After Cantu’s last day in the Army on June 13 of this year — which, coincidentally, will be the fifth anniversary of when Watson first enlisted in the Army — Cantu will be moving to Lufkin, where Watson’s brother and sister-in-law currently reside.

“There will be some form of connection there for a while,” Watson stated. “I'm looking forward to his future. I know he's going to kill it in the civilian world, as they say, and he's gonna do really well. As a fellow Hornet, I am proud to have had the opportunity to learn and train with a man like CSM Cantu. I do not know much, but I do know he is rare for this profession.”