A Combat Veteran’s Hope…
What started out as softball games for veterans connected with the Wounded Warrior Project grew into something much more when a few local guys got together and created a group specifically for combat veterans.
Larger, more well-known organizations exist for veterans, but it was clear there was a need in the Valley for greater support on a consistent basis. A Combat Veteran’s Hope began in 2015 with the vision of empowering every generation of combat veterans to successfully integrate back into their local communities.
CJ Cantu, born and raised in Texas, was stationed with the Marine Corps in Camp Pendleton for several years and served two tours in Iraq. After enlistment, Cantu moved to Visalia and joined A Combat Veteran’s Hope a couple years after the group began, and is now chief of staff.
“Combat changes a person, and you just really relate to people who have experienced the same thing,” Cantu says. “That’s what sets this group apart. It’s for combat veterans by combat veterans. I can’t relate to the guys who weren’t in battle like I was. We all want to be with like-minded individuals, to share our stories with people who know where we’re coming from.”
Unlike other organizations, A Combat Veteran’s Hope doesn’t host monthly member meetings. Everything is geared around social networking and events to help get members engaged in the community. The group strives to meet that need by providing more than a dozen events each month through sporting activities, peer support groups and family events like family dinners, softball, volleyball, skiing trips, horseback riding, camping and skydiving.
A Combat Veteran’s Hope is also unique because members don’t pay dues. Donations and grants ensure members can participate in activities for free. “We’re able to help war fighters do something they wouldn’t normally be able to do. It gives them a sense of empowerment, providing a support structure and network for these guys. Everything we do is from the heart,” Cantu says.
The pandemic forced volunteers to get creative to keep members connected and ensure these heroes did not feel isolated. The group pivoted all family events to contactless delivery or drive-through options. “We also hosted virtual events to keep our members engaged with one another,” Cantu says. With approximately 155 members, the team is eager to resume in-person events soon.
A Combat Veteran’s Hope is based out of Visalia, but caters to the entire area. The vast majority of members are from Visalia, with some from Tulare, Porterville, Dinuba, Hanford and Fresno. “It’s multigenerational,” Cantu says, “and is made up of Vietnam, Korean, many Iraq, Afghan and Desert Storm veterans.”
The hope is for other war fighters to see what A Combat Veteran’s Hope is doing in the community. “Our mission is to empower combat vets through engagement with each other and their local community. That has been our bedrock. We want to get them out of the house and reintegrating into society and their communities.”
Another way A Combat Veteran’s Hope continually strengthens the community is through HOPE calls, a term they’ve coined that stands for Help Our Patriots Endure. It consists of simple buddy checks and phone calls asking how someone is doing. The smallest acts of kindness go a long way, particularly in seasons of isolation.