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Former Fort Chaffee commander dies at 73

Marines from the Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. (8th and I) fold the U.S. flag during military funeral honors for U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Ronald Lee Ermey in Section 82 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Jan. 18, 2019. (Elizabeth Fraser/U.S. Army/Arlington National Cemetery)
October 12, 2019

Thomas Cannava, a former commander of Fort Chaffee and successful local Realtor, recently died in Fort Smith. He was 73.

A highly decorated Vietnam veteran who also served at the Pentagon during his military career, Cannava passed away Oct. 4. Visitation for Cannava’s family was Wednesday at Edwards Funeral Home.

Burial with full military honors will be at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery.

Among his 20 military citations was a Silver Star for saving two medics caught under fire. He also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven Individual Acts of Valor during the war. He retired from the Army in 1994 after serving as base commander at Fort Chaffee for two years, overseeing a $65 million budget with nearly 1,000 employees.

Unable to find a job in civilian life after retirement, and still just in his 50s, he became a Realtor upon recommendation of a friend. After about 15 years of building up his business, he bought Bob Brandford’s share of Bradford & Udouj Realtors. He eventually also bought Ronnie Udouj’s share, but never changed the name of the business.

“He was never one to seek notoriety,” said Rachel Cannava Brown, his daughter and principal broker/part owner at Bradford & Udouj Realtors. “And he just thought ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.'”

Brown said her father also had the mentality of treating everyone equal, whether it was someone buying a $25,000 home or a $1 million estate. Although he served on the city planning commission for a time, Brown said her father was beyond reproach ethically, and never wanted to give anyone an opportunity for viewing a conflict of interest.

His second career as a Realtor, she noted, was somewhat by chance after the recommendation from a close friend.

He had many job interviews, his daughter and wife said, but he would usually get the same response: His military experience didn’t translate to civilian experience, despite overseeing a national military training center.

As commander of Fort Chaffee from February 1992 to June 1994, Cannava was one of the last regular Army commanders for what was then one of two national assets for joint maneuvers, according to current Fort Chaffee Commander Lt. Col. Dwight Ikenberry. In 1993, Fort Chaffee’s Joint Readiness Training Corps mission was transitioned to Fort Polk in Louisiana. Another National Training Center for tanks and other mechanized equipment is located in California. A JRTC base provides operations for the pinnacle level of combat readiness, Ikenberry said.

Fort Chaffee officially became a state-owned asset for the Arkansas National Guard in October 1997.

“Shifting down a mission like that, transitioning a national asset, a one-of-a-kind operation, was a pretty tremendous task,” Ikenberry said.

“Tom was a brilliant, dedicated warrior,” said Margaret Cannava, his wife of 52 years and two weeks.

Tom and Margaret started “going steady” when they were barely teenagers, 14 and 15. They got married six years later when Tom was on a five-day release from his tour of duty in Vietnam.

Tom said in 2014 he was certain he was going to marry Margaret from the day he saw her in high school during a Friday night dance.

“The most beautiful woman I ever saw walked through the doors, and now she’s right across the hall (of Cannava’s real estate office),” Tom said for the 2014 Times Record Veteran’s Day article.

Tom initially wanted to become a veterinarian He grew up on his father’s farm in Owensville, Ohio. However, when he realized how much graduate-level tuition was going to cost at Ohio State University, Cannava balked. He sought advice from his ROTC officer, Maj. Bill Vitters, at Eastern Kentucky. ROTC was a requirement for all men in college then. His ROTC officer advised Cannava to go to Ohio State and earn his degree. There, he joined ROTC and earned a stipend to help cover tuition.

After graduating from Ohio State in 1968 with a degree in animal science, Cannava became a second lieutenant artilleryman. Fighting in the Vietnam War became the most formative years of his life, he said in 2014. It did not take long for him to see action.

Margaret said she was recently notified her husband would be inducted into an Ohio veteran’s association with honors for his valor in combat. She looked up the Silver Star citation recently. In the late summer of 1969, not long after the party was over at Woodstock, Tom Cannava was knee deep in Vietnamese mud and saving lives in combat.

“He saved two medics’ lives,” Margaret said. “The medics didn’t carry weapons, and they were pinned down under fire. He took them back to safety.”

Tom also survived a helicopter crash after taking a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade. He had recently bought a portable short-range radio and sent out an SOS.

“I walked the area we were flying every day. That’s the only way I knew how to give them our general location,” he said in 2014.

A nearby flare ship picked up the SOS, sent a rescue team to collect those who survived the crash. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross medal that night. His military recognition also include: Defense Superior Service Medal, Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters (one for valor), Meritorious Service Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medical with six Oak Leaf Clusters (one for valor), Army Commendation Medal with five Oak Leaf Clusters (two for valor) and the Vietnam Cross with Bronze Star.

About seven years ago, Tom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Signs started showing up a couple years before that, his daughter said. They had to force him to get checked out.

It is a hope of both Margaret and Rachel that people who are caretakers of a family member with Alzheimer’s to not stay in the shadows, and for people to offer help to someone who is a caretaker.

“If they know a family going through that, ask what they can do,” Margaret said of Alzheimer’s caretakers. “Give a caretaker some relief. Take a caregiver to lunch, even just to have a few minutes of relief … It’s excruciating for the family when a loved one is going through the process of declining. It’s heartbreaking. Outsiders don’t notice until the final stages, but the family feels isolated. We were fortunate to have caregivers the final months at Baptist, but many do not.”

The Cannavas noted they are indebted to the Baptist Health Senior Life and Heart of Hospice for the “wonderful care” received from Dr. Fayz Hudefi; Brittany Clark, RN; and other nursing staff and aides.

In lieu of flowers, the Cannavas ask for friends and family to donate to the Alzheimer’s Association or Wounded Warrior Project.


© 2019 Times Record