SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii — Inside the house of the Gandara family, a portrait of a United States Army officer hangs above the couch.
Ask any family member about Saul and their face immediately softens, an ear-to-ear smile adorns their face as they happily embark on a verbal journey of how he is changing their family narrative.
“To see my brother where he is at is amazing,” said Erica Pulido. “I never thought he was gonna get where he is and everything started with him saying, I’m going to go join JROTC.”
U.S. Army Capt. Saul Gandara, a first-generation Mexican American who grew up in the historic neighborhood of El Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas, and now serves as the company commander assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, believes that the mentorship and guidance he received in Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps has been key to his success.
Bowie High School’s JROTC program, which was proudly led by retired U.S. Army Maj. Joseph Cancellare for 16 years, has a history of molding students into better citizens and inspiring them to embark on paths that leave ripples of forward mobility in the community.
For Cancellare, choosing to continue to give back to his country as a JROTC instructor and taking on the role of mentor for a young Gandara came naturally.
A former JROTC cadet himself, Cancellare said the leadership he was exposed to when he was in the program served him well on active duty and in life.
“I know what the Army has done for me and I know what it’s done for some of the people I’ve been associated with,” he said. “It brings them to a point where they have a chance to compete and a way to move up in our society, and that’s the primary reason for doing what I did.”
Without the program or Cancellare’s mentorship, Gandara is unsure where his life would be right now.
Gandara said that Cancellare’s encouragement and dedication to the program allowed him to stay focused on school and off the streets of El Segundo Barrio — a welcome distraction from the challenges that are all but too familiar in the small, close-knit community.
“I never would’ve imagined I would be in this position,” said Gandara about the experiences the U.S. Army has given him. “It’s taken me from being a kid in El Segundo Barrio to now leading America’s best and having the privilege to command. It’s taken me to a position where I can say that I’ve created a new legacy for my family and for my children.”
When Gandara reflects on his adolescence, he recognizes how fortunate he was to have a positive role model like Cancellare in his life, and the impact one person can have on an individual.
After graduating from Bowie High School, Gandara joined the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M, Cancellare’s alma mater, and now pays it forward to the school that was his gateway to a better life.
“Coming out of Bowie High School and going to A&M, I was blessed by the amount of people who were willing to help me, from my teachers to Maj. Cancellare,” said Gandara. “I knew that one day, when I was financially stable and the finances allowed, I wanted to give back somehow.”
Gandara, with the support of Cancellare and other Bowie High School alumni, created the “From an Oso to an Aggie '' scholarship awarded to a Bowie graduate who enrolls at Texas A&M.
“All we ask is that the student gets accepted and commits themselves to earning their degree,” said Gandara. “It is a way to promote students to break the generational norm.”
For Gandara, the investment pales to the intrinsic value helping others brings him because he can see himself in every student that receives the scholarship.
“The fact that we have somebody else who can now come back to El Paso and Bowie High School and advocate on what opportunities are out there … that’s what counts,” said Gandara.
Gandara visits Bowie High School every chance he gets to speak and connect with the current cadets, however, he harbors a vision of becoming a more permanent figure in the future, a mentor like Cancellare was to him.
“I think after my time in service, whether that be 20 years or whenever I decide to hang up the uniform, I think my next assignment is coming over to be the senior instructor for this battalion.”
Although Gandara is still young in his career, his early successes suggest that Bowie High School will have to wait well past the minimum retirement of 20 years to see him roaming the halls.
In the meantime, whether inside the city limits of El Paso or an Army formation, Gandara embraces the encouragement Cancellare instilled in him for future generations and advocates that life in the Army provides a gateway to a better future.