Man with a Mission

When his then 2-year-old granddaughter suddenly began referring to him as “Pooh” a couple of years back, Tommy Franks didn’t object. He may be a tough-talking military man, but he embraced the moniker with full force, donning Winnie the Pooh sweatshirts whenever he was with with the toddler and her younger brother, even wearing Pooh neckties. “I have no idea where it came from,” says Franks’s daughter Jacqy, 30. “But that’s what we call him.”

Outside the family circle, Franks, 56, is viewed as anything but a warm and cuddly teddy-bear type. And that may be some comfort to Americans who are hoping for a resolution in the current war against terrorism. As commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, the lanky four-star general, known for his Pattonesque flair for profanity, is the head of Operation Enduring Freedom. His task: to bring Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda organization and, ultimately, terrorists across the globe to justice.

Comparisons to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who held the title of commander in chief during the Gulf War of the early ’90s, are inevitable. But in contrast to “Stormin’ Norman,” whose blustery press conferences during Operation Desert Storm were legendary, Franks maintains a much lower public profile—one that may be better suited to a war dependent more on stealth than bravado. “My business is a secret business,” says Franks, who is normally based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa but whose wartime whereabouts are secret. He may appear low-key, but those who know him well say he is up to the difficult task at hand. “He has leadership, an affinity for soldiers and competence at the strategic level,” says retired Gen. John Tilelli, his onetime superior who now runs the USO. “That adds up to what you would want a leader to be.”

There were few signs of such capacity during Franks’s early years as the only child of Ray, a Wynnewood, Okla., construction worker, and Lorene, a seamstress and homemaker (both are deceased). Soon after his birth in 1945, the family relocated to George W. Bush’s former hometown of Midland, Texas, where Franks was a lineman on the high school football squad but made little impression. “He was Mr. Easygoing,” says C. Ray Allen, 54, a teammate who recalls Franks dancing in a drag cancan number with other players for a charity event. Dropping out after his sophomore year at the University of Texas at Austin in 1965, he joined the Army, attending officer candidate school at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill before serving as a second lieutenant in the artillery in Vietnam. There he spent much of his time out in front of U.S. ground troops, directing fire on the enemy. He was wounded three times—once by a bullet that traveled the length of his leg—earning three Purple Hearts and four Bronze Stars.

Returning to Fort Sill, he married Cathy Carley, now 53, a college student who became a history teacher and mother to their only child. Leading the military life, they moved all over the world, with postings in Germany, Korea, Texas and the Pentagon as he worked his way up through the ranks. During the Gulf War, Franks was an assistant division commander of the First Cavalry Division, overseeing tactical units battling from helicopters and on the ground. “Tommy believed that leaders lead from the front,” says Tilelli, his colleague.

Franks’s success in the Gulf and, later, directing a major effort to modernize the Army and commanding the U.S. Second Infantry Division in Korea led President Clinton in June 2000 to make him head of the Central Command, overseeing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units that operate over the tumultuous area stretching from northern Africa and the Persian Gulf to southwest Asia.

Franks had been on the job just four months when terrorists bombed the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39. He immediately flew from his base at MacDill to Yemen. “He knew there was work to be done,” says his wife, Cathy, “and he wanted to get on with it.” Of course, terrorists would make his task even more urgent—and formidable—after the Sept. 11 attacks. But Franks seems well-suited to the helm of a war that has been like no other. “He’s capable of thinking unconventionally,” says retired Maj. Gen. Leo Baxter, an old friend. “And that should be a benefit.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Don Sider in West Palm Beach

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