Retired general who made history and created legacy, now ravaged by dementia
By SIG CHRISTENSON | San Antonio Express-News | Published: April 2, 2016
SAN ANTONIO (Tribune News Service) — As one version of the story goes, a crippling performance evaluation was pushing then-Brig. Gen. Colin L. Powell’s military career toward a dead end when two higher-ranking commanders learned of it.
The two generals were horrified to hear Powell tell them over dinner in 1982 that he planned to leave the Army. One of them was a legendary Texas war hero, Gen. Richard E. Cavazos, who decided to intervene.
It came as no surprise to those who knew Cavazos that he went out of his way to keep Powell in the Army.
The first and only Hispanic four-star general, he is now 85, living his last days, his once-encyclopedic mind ravaged by dementia.
It’s painful for those he led and mentored. Some weep when talking of it.
In recent interviews, they described Cavazos as loyal and fearless, a master tactician, an innovator, a charismatic soldier’s soldier. He served as a role model for every Hispanic general who came up through the ranks, retired Army Maj. Gen. Alfredo Valenzuela said.
In his autobiography, Powell — who became the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, later, U.S. secretary of state — called Cavazos an Army legend who saved his career.
The other commander at the dinner table that night, now-retired Lt. Gen. Julius Becton Jr., recalled that Powell had a personality conflict with his supervisor and had suffered for it.
“And what got my attention, and it got Dick’s attention, too, was when Colin said he was probably going to put in his papers,” said Becton, of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, now 89.
Powell confirmed the account through a spokesman.
While he still has a firm handshake, Cavazos doesn’t talk much. He sat in his wheelchair in a San Antonio nursing home recently and stared gently at his wife, Caroline, as they held hands.
Asked about his father, a World War I veteran who worked on the legendary King Ranch, he replied, “I’m really taken by the building. It appeared out of nowhere.”
There are better days. At 83, Caroline Cavazos is his constant companion, living a short walk away at the Army Residence Community in Northeast San Antonio. Each night she helps put him to bed. He’s often anxious, so she climbs into bed and hugs him. In time, he falls asleep.
“'He just wants to know that I'm here,” she explained. “We don't talk much. I hug him. It's amazing. I'm still in love with him.”
How Cavazos became an Hispanic icon was rooted in his childhood on the King Ranch and forged in Korea, where his fluency in Spanish helped him lead a once-shamed Puerto Rican Army National Guard regiment to combat distinction and where he risked his life to recover men left behind.
“He’s one of these kind of guys in the military, we used to say, ‘He looked good from the top’ — the commanders, his commanders, thought the world of him — and he looked good from the bottom, because every troop thought the world of him,” said Charles Carden, one of his company commanders in Vietnam.
“He was such a good soldier,” added retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff. “He was born that way. He liked men, he liked combat soldiers. He was courageous and they knew it, and they knew he couldn’t ask them to do anything that he wouldn’t do with them.”
Richard Edward Cavazos had a theory of leadership that he attributed to the great commanders of history. He called it “moral ascendancy” and said those who possessed it had an edge, an aura of superiority.
Cavazos had it — and it made him the best Army general in a century, said retired Lt. Gen. Marc Cisneros, who was one of Cavazos’ battalion commanders in the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood.
“He would talk about General Lee, and that one of the reasons General Lee was superior is because he had moral ascendancy over his Union generals,” said Cisneros, 76, of Corpus Christi. “If the troops had trust and that faith in you, that you were going to lead them well to victory, that’s moral ascendancy.”
Cavazos was the son of a Mexican-American cowhand. His father, Lauro Cavazos, came to Kingsville in 1912, fought as an Army artillery sergeant in World War I and became a foreman of the King Ranch’s Santa Gertrudus division in an era of intense racism.
Being handy with a rope, horses and guns came with the job. Tom Lea’s history of the ranch describes Lauro Cavazos as among the 16 “Kineños” and guests, including eight Army soldiers, who repulsed an hours-long attack by 58 cross-border raiders at a house in Norias in 1915 during an era of guerilla violence spun off from the Mexican Revolution.
Determined to give their children a life beyond the ranch, Lauro and Thomasa Quintanilla Cavazos put all five of them through college. Lauro Cavazos Jr., became the U.S. education secretary under the first President Bush.
Dick Cavazos, their second son, got a degree in geology from Texas Tech University, playing football until breaking a leg his senior year. Studying alongside World War II veterans made an impression.
“He said if you weren’t a serious student after you got a look at them, you were when you did,” the Vietnam journalist and author Joe Galloway said. “Those guys had lost five years of their lives and they were in such a hurry to get it back and get on with their lives that they were total, zero-BS students. And you didn’t want to be sitting in a classroom with them if you were anything less than they were.”
Cavazos served in ROTC before entering the Army. Eventually he would lead a brigade, a division, an Army corps and finally command all soldiers in the continental United States before retiring in 1984.
But first, he led a company in Korea and a battalion in Vietnam, where he learned that mistakes were as instructive as success.
In Korea, he dressed down a sergeant who shot an enemy soldier who could have been captured. Cavazos then decided to lead the next patrol, and his adrenaline took over when he encountered a North Korean soldier who was carrying pots and pans — a cook, Cisneros said.
“And he said, ‘Guess what I did? I put that mother on full automatic and that was the end of it.’” Cisneros said. “Before you chew somebody out, you have to understand that you could probably be in that same situation.”
Leading in front
Cavazos’s first combat came with the Puerto Rican regiment months after its troops fled their observation post, resulting in the court-martial of more than 90 soldiers. He was awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest decoration for battlefield gallantry, for leading a small group of men to capture an enemy soldier under fire in February, 1953.
That summer he earned a Distinguished Service Cross for withdrawing his company from Hill 412 amid heavy shelling and rifle fire and going back to look for missing American troops. He found five and “evacuated them, one at a time, to a point on the reverse slope of the hill from which they could be removed,” states the citation for the medal, the second-highest award for valor.
“Lieutenant Cavazos then made two more trips … searching for casualties and evacuating scattered groups of men who had become confused,” it continued. “Not until he was assured that the hill was cleared did he allow treatment of his own wounds.”
As a 38-year-old colonel in Vietnam, he earned another DSC in 1967 for organizing a counterattack against a battalion-sized enemy force that hit one of his companies near Loc Ninh.
“When the fighting reached such close quarters that supporting fire could no longer be used, he completely disregarded his own safety and personally led a determined assault on the enemy positions,” the DSC citation said. “The Viet Cong were overrun and fled their trenches.”
Carden, 77, of Biloxi, Mississippi, was then a captain. He observed his boss calmly sitting by a tree and waiting for a round of artillery fire, “absolutely fearless.”
“They brought in napalm,” said Ronnie Campsey, a private first class from Devine who is now 73, of Long Island, New York. “You could feel the heat from the napalm just taking the breath out of you, that’s how close we were to it. You could see the enemy moving up the hill to get away from the artillery and the air support.”
Cavazos “directed artillery fire on the hilltop, and the insurgents were destroyed as they ran,” the citation states.
Bill Fee, a private first class in Campsey’s company who was badly wounded two days later, said most battalion commanders coordinated ground attacks and search-and-destroy missions by radio from defensive perimeters or from helicopters.
“Cavazos would have none of that. He was on the ground,” said Fee, 68, of Cincinnati. “He fought with us side by side and he earned our respect.”
Bringing lessons home
Cavazos’ determination to share what he had learned helped shape today’s Army. He was an early supporter of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, a vast desert range used to prepare troops for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was influential in developing the Army’s Battle Command Training Program for higher-ranking officers.
Cavazos would never betray a friend, even if it could hurt his chances of promotion, Becton recalled. And well into his retirement, he was still teaching officers how to fight.
Sullivan, the retired Army chief of staff, said Cavazos had “a real knack for being able to mentor people, very senior people, that was very open, very candid, and guys responded” because of his experience and credibility.
“They would put them in a tent with their radios and make them fight a battle, like they would have to command a battle in the field,” Galloway said. “And it was Cavazos who would go in and lean over their shoulder at the computer and say, ‘You know, son, I think if you do that you’re going to kill that brigade. Is that what you really want to do?’”
Cavazos’ real impact was in the hearts of those he led.
“I had the honor of being evaluated by him,” said Valenzuela, who commanded U.S. Army South when it relocated to Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. “When the results were read I told (him) what he meant to us poor Hispanic kids, growing up in the barrios. … We both cried, not so much on the results, but because of the legacy we both were leaving behind.”
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