Thrust into the international spotlight following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gen. Tommy Franks ('71) oversees the vast U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan.
by Mark Permenter
Tommy Franks' interview with Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week figured to be routine. It was three months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and TV appearances had become commonplace for the man running the day-to-day operations of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.
"My first thought [after Sept. 11] was that this was going to change America for my grandkids. And I believe I was exactly right."
Gen. Tommy Franks
But Roberts' questioning took a playful turn. Instead of grilling the four-star general on the war, she kidded him about news agencies calling him Bubba.
"You're here talking to me, Cokie," Franks said with a smile and a West Texas drawl. "Can you imagine why anybody would call me that?"
Roberts laughed, no doubt welcoming the lightheartedness in uncertain times. Franks went on to say that none of his friends call him Bubba, but his grandchildren call him Pooh.
"When you're responsible for things that are very important, it's key that you're able to maintain your balance," he said during a recent telephone interview from his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. "I decided a long time ago that I would always take my job very seriously but myself not so seriously."
Reveille comes at 4:30 a.m. seven days a week. After some treadmill or road work, Franks sits down to breakfast with his wife, Cathy. Every morning she kisses him good-bye and says, "Go make the world safe for democracy."
At 6:30 he heads for the office to do just that, launching into a series of meetings and video teleconferences with U.S. forces around the world. He meets daily with coalition representatives from 39 nations and talks at least once a day with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
At noon, he goes home for lunch. Afternoons bring more meetings until he calls it a workday around 7.
Franks' role as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command puts him in a long line of storied leaders like Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. He oversees U.S. military operations covering 25 nations in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East.
"The decisions made in any given day are many, and there really isn't enough time to hand-massage all of them," he said. "So one works pretty hard to try to be thoughtful but at the same time make decisions rather quickly. I call it rapid thoughtfulness."
His daughter, Jacqy Matlock, calls it sensitivity.
"He's sensitive, and I think that is often overlooked. He considers all angles in every decision that he makes. When he's thinking about sending soldiers into harm's way, he really takes the families into consideration.
"He looks pretty tough," she says with a laugh, "but he's sensitive."
"I decided a long time ago that I would always take my job very seriously but myself not so seriously."
Gen. Tommy Franks
Franks began nurturing the stern-but-compassionate military persona in 1967 when he was commissioned a second lieutenant as a distinguished graduate of the Artillery Officer Candidate School in Fort Sill, Okla. Vietnam followed; he was wounded three times and awarded three Purple Hearts.
In a 35-year military career, Franks has filled commands in Germany and Korea, at the Pentagon and at Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Monroe, Va.; and Atlanta, Ga. He also served in Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm and in Iraq. In June 2000, he was promoted to general and assigned to his present command.
His success comes as no surprise to retired Army Gen. Crosbie Saint, who met Franks in 1983 when he was a battalion commander in Germany.
"He has the unique ability to get everything out of his unit," said Saint, who still communicates with Franks about twice a month. "He has always been very action oriented. He is very perceptive in terms of the politics of the situation, and he's very detail oriented."
The old college try
After graduating from Midland's Robert E. Lee High School in 1963, Franks headed to U.T. Austin, where he admits he had not yet developed his attention to detail.
"I had absolutely no sense of any responsibility to study anything," he said. "My grades were so abysmal for the two years I was there that I simply left and joined the Army."
He planned to leave the Army after returning from Vietnam and getting married in 1969. Then one of his bosses asked if he'd like to go back to college as part of the Army's Boot Strap Degree Completion Program.
"I said, 'That'd be great, I'd like to do that,' " Franks recalls. "The question was where to go. I had friends who had graduated from Arlington, so I said, 'Hey, I'd like to go to UTA.' "
By the time he arrived in 1970, his study habits had improved. "I was actually a heckuva student because I was tuned in to what I was trying to do." He remembers going to a few ballgames and social activities, but he primarily concentrated on making good grades. He earned a 3.83 grade-point average in 90 hours at UTA.
Three of those hours came in a literature class of Professor George Fortenberry, a member of the English faculty from 1955 to 1982. "I enjoyed him immensely," Franks said. "He's a guy who stands out in my memory."
Franks also stands out in Dr. Fortenberry's memory, though not quite as vividly.
"I can remember Tommy being very good at discussion, but otherwise I can't remember a lot about him. I can't remember if I gave him an A or an F," the 82-year-old Dr. Fortenberry said with a laugh. "It makes you feel great to be remembered by someone who has reached such a high position." For the record, Franks earned an A in the Representative American Writings class.
He graduated in 1971 with a bachelor of business administration degree and considered going to law school. "I like to argue," he says. But he opted to remain in the military. It was unarguably the right decision.
The day the world changed
"Osama bin Laden."
Those were the first words Franks uttered as he watched the jet strike the second World Trade Center tower on the morning of Sept. 11. En route to Pakistan to meet with President Pervez Musharraf, he and his crew had stopped in Crete to refuel the plane when a staff member told him to turn on the television.
He knew immediately that it was a terrorist act. He also knew that he would likely play a critical role in America's military response since many of the 25 countries in his area of responsibility, including Afghanistan, were state sponsors of terrorism.
As Operation Enduring Freedom has unfolded, Franks has indeed been a central figure. He talks with President Bush at least once a week, and the president often refers to him when discussing the war effort. One instance came at Bush's Crawford ranch in December as he warned of a lengthy military campaign.
"When Tommy says, 'Mission complete, Mr. President,' that's when we start moving troops out," Bush said.
Now more than a year after the attacks, American troops remain in Afghanistan. And people still want to know bin Laden's whereabouts. Is he alive or dead? It's a question Franks has been asked a thousand timesÑeven by his granddaughter.
He's quick to point out that bin Laden's death might make Americans feel better, but it wouldn't end terrorism. America must remain focused on destroying the terrorist networks, he said, and not be consumed by the fate of one man.
"America evidences a degree of resolve in all this work that we have not had since the Second World War," Franks said. "The resolve to work through this at the grass-roots level in this country is beyond anything I have experienced in my life."
He tells the story of a young trooper traveling in uniform through a large U.S. airport. A woman on the custodial staff walked up and handed the man a piece of paper. He opened it, and it said, "Thank you."
"That's a very, very powerful statement, and it happens every day," Franks said. "I could tell you story after story after story of young people in uniform who've had the same type of experience.
"These are stories that are happening today, not last October or November."
Franks, 57, has a reputation as a devoted husband, dedicated father and doting grandfather. His thoughts of bin Laden following the terrorist attacks were fleeting; his real focus was on his family back home.
"My first thought was that this was going to change America for my grandkids. And I believe I was exactly right."
The America he knew as a boy seems idyllic now. Born in tiny Wynnewood, Okla., Franks was the only child of a mechanic father and stay-at-home mother. The family moved to Midland when he was young.
"I'm not a person who can say I grew up in a sad home," he said. "I had the most wonderful, supportive family you could ask for."
That's the same type of environment he strives to provide for his family. Jacqy, the Franks' only child, is married to an Army major and lives in Fort Hood. They have two young children, a boy and a girl. Sacrificing family for career has never been an option for the general.
"I think a lot of people go through life and, in some cases, are very successful in a profession," he said. "But when they reach 75 or 85 years old, they look around and say, 'Therefore, so what?' "
That's not a question her father will have to ask himself, Jacqy says.
"He found that what was important was his family and spending time with my mom and me. He does the same with my children when we visit. He'll take time to go to the zoo, the aquarium, play hide-and-seek. He's very involved, and he's a very loving man."
Several years ago while visiting his daughter and her family, he wore a Winnie the Pooh T-shirt. When his granddaughter spied the shirt, she looked up and said, "Pooh."
"It stuck," Franks said. "I think it's kind of cute."
It also reinforces the balance between his personal and professional lives and reminds him that a little levity goes a long way.
"I pay very close attention to the work we're trying to do," he says, "but I laugh at myself all the time."
Even when someone calls him Bubba.