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The leathery general who may rule Baghdad

By Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 11, 2003


Tommy Ray Franks doesn't have that West Point spit and polish. He grew up in Midland, Texas - same hometown as you-know-who - hunting quail and kicking up dust in an old black Chevelle.

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He dropped out of school and joined the Army in 1967 - "to grow up" (his words). That he did, rising from private to four-star general.

Today, he's a 6 ft. 3 in. piece of rawhide who can both cuss out soldiers and serenade them with a little Garth Brooks. He's also poised to lead 300,000 US troops in an invasion of Iraq.

You're not supposed to call him "commander in chief" of the US Central Command. That title's been abolished as aggrandizing, per the order of Donald Rumsfeld.

But tell that to the ranks. He may be the kind of general who got them to include that "Chief," in the first place.

"Truthfully, I would follow him anywhere," says an Army noncommissioned officer who has served under him.

While any new war with Iraq might be the most challenging US military engagement of his generation, General Franks has not exactly been sitting around Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

His job involves overseeing US military involvement in the hottest region in the world - a realm that includes 25 countries from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia. He ran the lightning-speed war in Afghanistan, heads up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and now - if the president so decides - will push the button marked "go" for an Iraq conflict.

His preparation for this moment was admittedly unorthodox, by Army standards. After serving in the enlisted ranks in Vietnam (and earning three Purple Hearts), he returned to college, then graduated into the officer corps, and rotated through Germany, Korea, and Desert Storm, among other assignments, on his way to four stars.

Everywhere, he picked up knowledge that's prepared him for his current post, Franks said recently at a Pentagon press conference. "I think we go day by day, in learning from past experience, in thinking about the next experience, in applying our lessons by way of instruction, by way of example, to the young people who will be called on to do the work."

He's straightforward, plainspoken, and downright blunt. That's why, both superiors and subordinates say, he is a much beloved and revered commander. He's seen as a leader who is more at home with troops in the field than with peers at the Pentagon.

"Tommy Franks is the kind of soldier every young officer wants to be," says Gen. Barry McCaffrey (USA, ret), who led ground forces in a left-hook operation in Desert Storm. "He is a sophisticated guy, but there is no guile in him. That's why he's so well received by the leaders of Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region. When political leaders deal with him, they know when he says something, that's what he means."

He always claimed the prize

Franks's roots are in the dusty midland regions where the US military draws so many of its recruits. Born in Oklahoma, he moved to Midland as a small boy. He was known as "Tommy Ray" growing up, recalls his cousin, David Foster.

Mr. Foster, who hunted quail and dove with Franks as a boy, says Franks was a good shot, but that didn't matter, because he always claimed the prize. "When three people would shoot at a bird, no matter who hit it," Foster says, "Tommy would yell, 'Hey, pick up my bird, will you?' "

Chuckling, Foster, who is nine years younger than Franks, says, "I always looked up to him, and I always wanted to be around him. He had the fastest little old black Chevelle I've ever seen, and he took me out with the guys a lot."

Foster says Franks is deeply rooted in family and Texas - he grew up in Midland in a working-class family and attended public school, graduating just one year before First Lady, Laura Bush.

Foster says their families spent every Christmas together until Franks left for Vietnam. But even in his overseas post, Franks "opened his Christmas presents at 8 a.m. Texas time, so we were opening them at the same time," Foster recalls.