WASHINGTON — 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.
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."
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.
Leslie Hinds was the principal of Robert E. Lee High School where Franks attended. Mr. Hinds says Franks was an average student, the kind that blends in, never attracting attention.
But he, too, says Franks - who wears cowboy boots when out of uniform and loves enchiladas - has never forgotten where he's from. Hinds watched one of the first televised press conferences on Afghanistan that featured Franks. Afterward, he called his congressman for an address and wrote to compliment Franks. "Can you believe as busy as that man was, I had a letter back written in his own hand?" asks the astonished Hinds. "He does things like that. I'm so impressed that he is the man going to be leading us in Iraq. He has such an understanding of people, and he's so stable."
Franks is deeply rooted in family. He's been married for 33 years to his wife, Cathy, who often accompanies him in the field. In fact, Franks was recently investigated - but cleared with a slight reprimand yesterday - for allowing his wife to sit in on classified briefings.
Franks's stability and shepherding of his troops - which considers extended family - is what comes up over and over with those who talk about him.
Today, he's the right man in the right place for the United States, many of his peers say. If war with Iraq breaks out, Franks will basically hold the future of the Middle East in his hands. It could either stabilize, as the president envisions, or turn into a blazing inferno, as critics charge.
If the US prevails in Iraq, as Franks so solidly believes, he will have an even larger task on his hands - making way for democracy - an effort not undertaken by the US since General MacArthur restructured Japan after World War II.
Franks assumed leadership of the US Central Command in July 2000, just three months before terrorists blew a hole in the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen. That attack killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others.
The Congressional hearings that followed, where Franks appeared to answer for the military, was his first real experience with the limelight. It's clear he doesn't like that part of it; he rarely grants interviews, and supplies short, staccato, unrevealing answers at press conferences.
He often barks, when pushed on this, "I'm no Gen. [Norman] Schwarzkopf," the man who dazzled Americans during Desert Storm with his televised briefings and lessons on the art of warfare.
But although he does not fit the dapper, West Point-mold, he's credited with pulling off an amazing feat in Afghanistan.
After Al Qaeda terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon on 9/11, Franks was asked by the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to come up with a new war plan for Afghanistan.
It was clear that the one on the books, which called for sending in up to 50,000 troops in the first few months and predicted punishing casualties, wouldn't work.
Franks reportedly put together a new plan in 1 1/2 weeks, which called for teams of CIA paramilitary operatives and special forces commandos leading the charge - often on horseback - with incomparable air support.
"Afghanistan was the riskiest, most complex operation we've pulled off in 20 years," says General McCaffrey. "It was 600 miles from the sea, where they had only two carriers, a handful of F-16s. The max we had on the ground there was only 300 real special forces guys until we put in a Marine battalion."
In the end, it took only 9 weeks to rout the Taliban and scatter Al Qaeda. Still, it suffered failures. Osama bin Laden got away at Tora Bora in December 2001, when special forces and CIA operatives relied on the warlords to block his escape routes. Franks was roundly criticized for this, as well as for his leading his troops from his command post at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., rather than on the scene.
That's one thing that will change with Iraq. A command and control post has been set up in Qatar. Franks left this week to take control of the operation and is expected to remain there until Iraq is resolved.