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Anaheim cop patrols mean streets of Afghanistan

19 Aug 2011 | Cpl. Bryan Nygaard

PATROL BASE ERTOBA, Afghanistan — Lt. Raul Cantu was returning from a patrol in the southern portion of Musa Qal’ah District, Helmand province, when the mine resistant ambush protected vehicle he was riding in struck an improvised explosive device. The explosion jostled everyone inside.

“I just remember a flash of light, hitting the ceiling, getting the wind knocked out of me and being a little dazed,” said Cantu, the joint terminal attack controller for Fire Control Team 8, Supporting Arms Liaison Team “Delta,” 1st Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Company.

Everyone was alive, but banged up pretty good. Suddenly, the voice of one of his teammates broke the silence over the radio saying that they were coming to help them.

Cantu, a three-year veteran of the Anaheim, Calif., police department, compared the situation to times when he has been in a tight spot as a police officer and heard the sirens of another squad car coming to assist him.

“I had seen before where people get blown up, ambushed…it’s just nice to hear an American voice coming for you,” said Cantu, originally from Lynden, Wash.

Now, instead of patrolling the streets of Anaheim, he operates on the dusty, dangerous roads of Afghanistan.

Cantu originally enlisted in the Navy in 1995. He reported to recruit training at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., less than a month after returning from his honeymoon. After rising to the rank of petty officer second class, Cantu applied for the enlisted to commissioning program in 1999. He enrolled at the University of Washington and earned a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Law, Societies and Justice in just two and a half years. In December 2002, Cantu was commissioned an Ensign and was designated as a surface warfare officer.

In 2007, Cantu left the service to spend more time with his wife and four kids. He had spent nearly 13 years in the Navy, mostly at sea. Cantu credits his wife, Bridget, for sticking with him through that time.

“She’s good to go,” Cantu laughed. “She should be unit-issue.”

After working construction for a while, Cantu applied to several different law enforcement agencies. He was accepted by the Anaheim Police Department and showed up for training on December 24, 2008, at the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy.

“I felt it suited me,” said Cantu. “I could give you the standard blurb of ‘I wanted to serve and protect’ but…it’s a just a service mentality. We’re (military and police officers) cut from the same mold. Service is what we are.”

It was during this time that he also returned to the Navy, this time as a Reservist. The Navy was offering a hefty bonus for surface warfare officers and Cantu said the money was too good to pass up.

Cantu had been in the reserves for only a month when he took a physical readiness test and achieved a perfect score. Within weeks he had orders to 3rd ANGLICO, a Marine Corps Reserve unit based out of Bell, Calif. ANGLICO is a unit which specializes in calling for close air and fire support from aircraft, artillery and naval gunships. Much of 3rd ANGLICO consists of police officers, firefighters and paramedics from all over California.

Knowing Marines are recognized for their physical fitness standards, Cantu believes his PRT score is what led him to be assigned to them.

“I was like, what the heck is ANGLICO?” he recalled. “I have no idea where I’m going. So I showed up, I found out about it and I thought ‘this sounds pretty good.’”

Cantu was then sent to several schools for training, including Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer School at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif., and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga.

During his third year with the unit, Cantu was told he was being deployed to Afghanistan. Rather than be sent to another unit, Cantu chose to deploy with 3rd ANGLICO, which was augmented to support 1st ANGLICO.

“I was attached to 3rd ANGLICO already,” said Cantu. “I know the mission and I love it – blowing stuff up.

“When you say those words, ‘cleared hot,’ I can’t describe it. It’s a pretty big responsibility. There’s not too many of us.”

Now in Afghanistan, Cantu runs a team of three Marines. They coordinate close air support and medical evacuations for coalition forces operating in Regimental Combat Team 8’s area of operations in Northeastern Helmand province.

Being a Navy Reservist among active duty Marines made Cantu look like a fish out of water, but he has adjusted.

“He’s a Naval Reservist, so automatically some Marines are going to criticize, but he’s adapted well,” said Cpl. Douglas Johnson, a forward observer with Cantu’s team, and a native of Lisbon, Ohio. “He came out willing to do whatever was needed. He listens to us. He always takes our advice and asks us how we would do things.”

Cantu has observed several similarities between being a police officer in Anaheim and leading Marines in Afghanistan, most significantly the rules of engagement. He recently gave a class to soldiers from The Republic of Georgia on escalation of force during which he highlighted principles which all police officers abide by.

“If you pull that trigger, you need to know what’s behind that person,” said Cantu. “Know your weapon. Ask yourself, ‘Is your round going to go through the tree line into a heavily populated area and possibly strike a civilian?’”

There are differences between serving in Anaheim and Afghanistan, he noted.

“Here it’s pretty much every other day you’re getting small-arms fire or the occasional [rocket propelled grenade],” he explained.

For the next several months, Cantu will be operating out of armored vehicles and sandbag bunkers, providing coalition forces with fire support in one of the most volatile areas in Helmand province.

Cantu’s brother, Gabriel, is also in the Navy and is currently deployed to Kandahar province as an explosive ordnance disposal technician.