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Why I Serve: Cpl. Vinny Cantu
by Army Sgt. Michael Sword - September 11, 2012

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LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (9/1/2012) - There are many reasons people join the military and many reasons many people never leave. Love of country, college benefits and sense of duty are just some of the reasons that people raise their right hand and sign on the line but as they continue their career, different reasons arise.

U.S. Army Cpl. Vinny Cantu (left and front right) pulls security during a patrol near Combat Outpost Sultan Khyel in Wardak province, Afghanistan, July 24, 2012. Cantu is a 25-year-old native of Salem, Ore., who is serving in eastern Afghanistan with 2nd Platoon, Battle Company. 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, headquartered out of Vicenza, Italy. Cantu enlisted as an infantryman in 2006 and is on his third deployment to Afghanistan with the 173rd. Photos by Army Sgt. Michael Sword

The camaraderie, the stories and going out and doing something great with other soldiers are some of the reasons U.S. Army Cpl. Vinny Cantu, an infantryman with 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, Task Force 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and a native of Salem, Ore., has continued his Army career.

It was a phone call from a recruiter that got the process started. After graduating from South Salem High School in 2005 and growing tired of working at a grocery store, he decided to join in March 2006.

“Originally, I just got the phone call and he asked me a few questions,” he said. “The college perks sold me because that's initially why I was working in the first place.”

As he decided on his job choice, his parents had one piece of advice.

“I told my parents what I was doing and they were like ‘whatever you do, don't be infantry,' and that's the first thing I did,” he said. “Sign me up for airborne infantry I want to jump out of airplanes.”

After Basic Combat Training, One Station Unit Training and Airborne School, all at Fort Benning, Ga., he arrived in Vicenza, Italy, where 2nd Bn., and the 173rd ABCT are headquartered. Cantu arrived to the unit in August 2006 and was assigned to 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, only months after the brigade arrived back from their deployment to Afghanistan.

“When I first got to the unit it was very "to the standard,'” he said. “We had just gotten out of the garrison military mindset to the rapid-deployment mindset.”

Almost as fast as he arrived, Cantu found himself a member of 2nd Platoon of Battle Company, and headed to the deadly Korengal Valley in Kunar province, Afghanistan. The actions of the company, led by U.S. Army Capt. Dan Kearney, were documented by author Sebastian Junger in the novel “War” and the accompanying film “Restrepo.” Constant fighting, explosions, long days, longer nights and fallen soldiers marked their deployment.

“It was 15 months of hell,” he said. “The quote Capt. Kearney used to use was ‘forged in the blast furnace of combat.'”

After the deployment, the Sky soldiers returned to Vicenza and Cantu remained in 2nd platoon as other soldiers changed units, duty stations or just got out of the Army. As time went by, training continued and the 173rd was soon headed back to Afghanistan. When he found out that 2nd Battalion would be headed back to Kunar province, Cantu prepared for the worst.

“At that point I was preparing myself for Korengal version 2.0, and we got there I was pleasantly surprised when it didn't happen,” he said.

They were 30 kilometers from the Korengal Valley; it was six months before 2nd Battalion joined the rest of the 173rd in Logar and Wardak provinces. While the area was less kinetic than the Korengal, the use of IEDs in the area presented another challenge for Cantu.

“When I was up north in OEF VIII, I got blown up,” he said. “When you're in a truck you're just waiting for it and I don't like something I can't control.”

“When you're in a firefight, you can control where you're moving to, you can control your guys, you can move from one position to the next and see that next covered and concealed position,” he said.

After one rough deployment, and in the middle of another, Cantu looked forward to getting out of the Army. But as he looked at what he thought was a light at the end of the tunnel, he saw two things: a future outside the Army he wasn't quite prepared for; and more importantly, he saw his unit full of new soldiers with more to come and he decided to pass on what he knew. He decided to re-enlist while in Afghanistan for three more years.

“I don't want to let my unit, or what I feel is my unit, lose its reputation and I don't want to see the unit fail,” he said. “We've done well throughout our history as a unit.”

“Battle Company has always had a reputation of doing great things when they're in a combat zone,” he said.

Part of maintaining the Battle Company, standard is ensuring the newest soldiers to the unit know what they're stepping into and the legacy of the men they are following.

“Just like your family line, you have to know where you come from, you have to know what you're living up to,” he said. “These are big shoes to fill.”

“How are you going to do that if you don't know anything about the unit history or the past,” he continued. “I wanted to teach guys to want to uphold that standard.”

In Afghanistan for the third time with the 173rd and for the third time as a member of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, Cantu is adjusting to another location, another platoon and in many ways, another war.

“Every once in a while it's monotony but there's always something new,” he said. “It's a thinking man's game, like chess.”

“If they move on you, you have to move on them,” he said.

However, many things have changed for Cantu, and after three deployments, he's ready for a change.

“This time, I'm recently married,” he said. “The wife and I have talked about it and I think it's time for me to change, to do something different.”

“She supports me if I want to stay in, but I feel it's time for me to start a new chapter,” he said.

As Cantu continues his deployment and looks toward the future, he may leave the Army, but the things he's learned in the last few years will not be leaving him.

“I think it makes me a more well-rounded person,” he said. “I've had to live with minimal stuff so it makes me not take things for granted.”

“I'm happy to be here, happy to be alive,” he added. “I can't wait to get home and see my family and to my wife, thanks for supporting me.”

By Army Sgt. Michael Sword
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2012

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