Skip to comments.Picking cotton trained a leader
Posted on 12/21/2003 12:28:12 PM PST by SwinneySwitch
Ricardo Sanchez rose from poverty in Starr County to become an Army general
RIO GRANDE CITY - When Ricardo Sanchez was 13, he and an older brother told his mother they didn't want to go to school anymore.
OK, she said. They could pick cotton instead.
"I woke them up at 5 in the morning and sent them off in one of the trucks," said Maria Sanchez, the 77-year-old mother of the highest-ranking military official in Iraq. "They came home and they were very tired, but I just gave them some dinner and told them, 'Go to bed because tomorrow you have to wake up early. You have to get up at 5 a.m. and pick cotton for the rest of your life.' "
After one 14-hour workday, Sanchez told his mother he was done. School would be just fine.
She didn't let him off that easy. She didn't rejoice. She deliberated. Then she answered him.
"I said 'OK, you can go back, but you have to study hard,' " Maria Sanchez said.
The Cotton Story, as she calls it, is one of many hard lessons in a hard childhood that shaped Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. The Army, Sanchez has said, is easy compared to growing up in Rio Grande City, in a household of six children, with one parent, no plumbing and no electricity.
These days are good ones for the three-star general. Eight days ago, his forces captured former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. War coverage by cable news networks has introduced his face and voice to a nation. "Hispanic" magazine named him Hispanic of the Year.
In a telephone interview from Baghdad, Sanchez said that the lives of Iraqis, and to a degree, even the landscape along the banks of the Tigris River, often remind him of his boyhood in Rio Grande City.
"At times I fly around and see situations that remind me of the tough times that I went through, some of the poverty," he said. "I sometimes see myself in the kids that are out there. It reminds me of our days growing up near Mexico . . .
"The value systems you learn in your early years are very important touchstones you have to depend on in difficult times. Those were things I developed in Rio Grande City and Starr County."
Poorest county in the country
Just two miles from the Mexican border, Rio Grande City, population 12,000, sits at the base of Starr County, which the 2000 U.S. Census labeled as the poorest county in the United States.
The landscape is harsh and naked, filled with dry farmland and fields of mesquite, cacti and the occasional palm tree, along with sand that gusts of wind can blow into a flurry around one's eyes. But to current and former inhabitants, including Sanchez, it's just home - the place that prepared them for the rest of their lives.
In Sanchez's case, one important moment of preparation occurred in the sixth grade when a math teacher called him "dummy." Eager to prove her wrong, he studied harder and eventually majored in math at Texas A&I University, now Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
"That negative event had a tremendous impact on my life. It really made me who I am today," he said. "It was the first instance where I remember being challenged and reacting in a way that was very focused in order to prove people wrong."
Going to and graduating from A&I fulfilled one of his mother's most strident demands - that her children take their education seriously and eventually go to college.
Maria Sanchez's father took her out of school when she was in fourth grade. He told her that women don't need school because they keep house and raise children. Before she left, her teacher gave her a book about Mexican history that she cherished throughout her life, stashing it away and reading in secret when her father was out.
As a result of Maria Sanchez's insistence, all of her children have finished college and gone on to successful professional careers.
In a photograph taken in mid-November of this year - the last time the general was in the United States - his mother sits among her vast family. She presides quietly, the matriarch of six children, two stepchildren, 23 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez commander of coalition forces in Iraq since June 14.
Born: Rio Grande City, 1951
School: Distinguished Military Graduate, Texas A&I University in Kingsville, 1973
Award: Hispanic of the Year in the December issue of Hispanic magazine
Military Honors: The Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal with "V" device and oak leaf cluster, the Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Southwest Asia Campaign Medal, the Liberation of Kuwait Medals (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) and the Master Parachutist Badge.
'A very difficult year' at UT
After graduating as a Junior ROTC cadet at Rio Grande City High School, Sanchez attended the University of Texas for one year on an ROTC scholarship. His time there, he said, was difficult as an ROTC cadet in a place with a strong Vietnam antiwar movement.
"Nineteen-sixty-nine was, as you know from history, a very difficult year for America," he said. "That was my freshman year at Texas. I remember being in altercations with protesters who were trying to take down the flag and burn it. We wouldn't allow them to. Sometimes they'd come around during formations and throw tomatoes at us or spit on us because, you know, we were the baby killers."
Sanchez transferred to A&I. He credits the university with preparing him for a positive military and life experience.
"Those were some wonderful times," Sanchez said. "The things I remember are a conservative area, with encouraging, mentoring professors. And the one thing I still treasure today is having met my wife there."
English professor Emil Mucchetti, who taught both Sanchez and his wife, Maria Elena Garza, said he became emotional when he received a gracious e-mail from the general.
"Probably the most important thing I learned from you," the e-mail said, "was that if you believe in someone, encouraged them and empowered them, they would rise to the challenge thereby leading them to success."
Proving them wrong
Sanchez finished at A&I in 1973 as a distinguished military graduate, having double-majored in math and history. He decided to join an airborne division, wanting to emulate his older half-brother, Domingo, who had fought as a paratrooper in Vietnam.
"They said, 'don't even bother because they'll never accept an ROTC graduate, let alone a Hispanic,' " Sanchez recalled. "So I put that down as my one and only choice."
He felt vindicated, he said, when he entered the Army in the 82nd Airborne, commissioned as a second lieutenant.
From the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, N.C., Sanchez earned promotion after promotion, twice being elevated "below the zone" - promoted a year earlier than his peer group - according to his wife.
Sanchez has served all over the United States, as well as in Korea, Panama and various parts of Germany. This is his second tour of duty in the Middle East, having served as a battalion commander in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. The bulk of his assignments have been in armored divisions, serving in or commanding tank battalions.
As a soldier and commander, Sanchez has received praise from such well-known superiors as Democratic presidential candidate and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Drug czar and retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
Sanchez is known for developing unusually strong rapport with his soldiers.
Retired Lt. Gen. Randy House, who commanded the then-colonel in Fort Riley, Kan., said that Sanchez had an exceptional ability with soldiers.
"Ric had a feeling for soldiers that all officers do not have," House said. "He could accomplish any mission while always looking out for the benefit of his troops. He's a great teacher and a coach to his people. If something goes wrong, he never chews anybody out. He just stops and coaches."
Sanchez's wife said in a telephone interview from the family's home in Heidelberg, Germany, that her husband's soldiers often introduce him to their families - unusual among generals, whose rank and demeanor tend to intimidate the rank and file.
In battle, his peers say, he shows initiative and a gift for strategy.
Retired Col. Bill Chamberlain, who was an infantry battalion commander serving alongside Sanchez's tank battalion in Operation Desert Storm, recalled a daring rescue by Sanchez.
Chamberlain's infantry battalion, leading all others into the Euphrates Valley, ran out of fuel in an unsecured area.
"Ric somehow knew that our battalion was out there on our own," Chamberlain said. "He came forward with his battalion during the night and linked up with us. We were outnumbered 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 against the Iraqis and it could have gone either way until he got there with us. His battalion passed us and took up the fight.
"A more cautious or self-serving individual would have stayed put to try and see what was going on."
The two gulf wars
In the first Gulf War, Sanchez brought his battalion to the gates of Basra without losing a single soldier, according to published accounts. Shortly after his tour, he received a letter from McCaffrey, his commander in the conflict, in which the general said he hoped he would see Sanchez receive his first star, which would make him a brigadier general.
That star, and others, were soon to come. Sanchez became the ninth Hispanic general in U.S. Army history, six of whom were from South Texas.
Between his tours in the Gulf, he served in several stateside capacities, including under McCaffrey and Clark at the Army's Southern Command in Florida.
When Sanchez earned his third star - lieutenant general - earlier this year, it came with an unexpected appointment: commanding the Army's V Corps and all coalition ground forces in Iraq, starting June 14 this year.
Since the bulk of Sanchez's tenure came after President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, his post has become an amalgam of unforeseen responsibilities.
Retired Lt. Gen. House, Sanchez's former commander, said the Texan's principal success in Iraq has been twofold: first, pursuing successful tactical military operations without alienating the Iraqi people; and second, adapting to a mission that has transformed itself many times over.
"Ric, by being the commanding general of all the forces over there, is having to look to the left and fight a war, and look to the right and bring the Iraqi nation out of 20 years of oppression," House said.
Sanchez said that he meets with L. Paul Bremer, the appointed civilian administrator of Iraq, on a daily basis to discuss U.S. efforts to reorder Iraqi society. Sanchez has been involved in the nation-rebuilding efforts to restore electricity, plumbing and general phone service.
"It's a very difficult mission that's more art than science," House said. "He's having to be a diplomat, a soldier and a great communicator.
"A lot of the success he's having now is because of his ability to change as the mission keeps changing," House said. "When he got there, he had one situation, and the defenses were set. As that changed, he was able to adjust operations and dictate to the enemy the terms of engagement. It took a while, but we're starting to show it. History is going to look back and show that Ric Sanchez was there during the most critical phase of this conflict."
Even before Saddam Hussein was captured, Sanchez had already led the charge in cutting attacks on American troops by half during the month of November. Now that Saddam is in custody and insurgent networks have been penetrated, those who know Sanchez expect his successes in the conflict to elevate him further.
Sanchez said that meeting Saddam and looking into his leathery, bearded face was a harrowing experience.
"It was sobering to be able to stand in the presence of a man that was such a brutal dictator, and to ensure that he's no longer going to abuse his people," he said. "It was very sobering, very sobering."
Sanchez said it was too soon to tell how much of a difference the capture of Saddam would make. House said the nation's future was still unsettled.
"There are some big possibilities for this country to reconcile itself with its past, great possibilities for peace, and a great possibility for the people of Iraq to establish a pure and stable environment in this country," he said.
Missing an important date
House predicts that Sanchez will get a fourth star after the conflict, becoming only the second Hispanic four-star general in Army history. Gen. Richard Cavazos, of Kingsville, who retired in 1984, was the first.
Sanchez did not express any concern for future promotions, and said he only looked forward to seeing his wife and children again. He and Maria Elena Garza Sanchez have had five children - one, a boy, died in a car accident 21 years ago.
The general will especially miss spending Monday, his 30th wedding anniversary, with his wife. The general credited his family, particularly his wife - who talked him out of leaving the military when he was a captain - for his ascent in the Army and in life. The family has moved 16 times to accommodate his career.
"She's my best friend and my greatest supporter," he said. "She's just made so many sacrifices for me and my family. She's the reason I am a general today."
His wife said she and her husband have always been devout Christians, and she believes their religion has carried them through joy and sorrow, including the loss of their son, Marquito.
"My husband does not start the day without going to the Lord," she said. "Every decision he makes out there on the battlefield, he makes it with the Lord."
Her husband's favorite Scripture, the one he reads to troops at the end of his speeches and the one he has posted on his wall, is a selection from the opening lines of Psalm 144.
"Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight: My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me."
Contact Brad Olson at 886-3764 or email@example.com
Like the General, one day was enough for me.
It doesn't require the physical strength of haying, but it's at least as hard a job.
Big difference between Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez and the 'perfumed prince'.
God bless him and keep him and his troops safe from harm.
That's why you're not a General.
The first money I ever earned was at age 5 picking peanuts for a neighbor whose allotment was too small to justify a peanut picking machine. The first day I earned 35 cents which seemed like a fortune.