New commander of Iraq's ground troops credits poverty, family, Hispanic roots

WASHINGTON—This weekend, a soft-spoken 52-year-old Texan pins on his third general's star and takes command of the U.S. Army's V Corps and all coalition ground forces in Iraq.

It's the second tour in Iraq for Ricardo S. Sanchez of Rio Grande City, Texas, who thrives on tough jobs. In his first tour, as an armor battalion commander, Sanchez fought his way almost to the gates of Basra in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm.

Now it falls to Sanchez and the nearly 200,000 American and British troops in Iraq to try to make peace and keep it among a fractious and feuding 24 million people in a country the size of California.

His rise to high command is a real American success story. He grew up poor in a poor Hispanic town in deep South Texas, son of a single mother who struggled to obtain education for her six children and for herself.

Sanchez can remember how excited he and his brothers and sisters were on the two Thursdays each month when his mother would go to the relief center and draw their food rations. "That meant we would have some meat, cheese and butter in the house for at least a couple of days," he said recently. "With a family of six that didn't last long, and there were many days when we had only beans and rice."

Maria Elena Sauceda Sanchez and her family first lived in a one-room house on a dirt road on the outskirts of town. No indoor plumbing. Then they built a small two-bedroom bungalow on the same land. Again, no indoor plumbing. It wasn't until he went away to college that Sanchez had access to running water and an indoor toilet.

Sanchez began working after school—sweeping up and cleaning his uncle Raul Sanchez's dry-cleaning and tailor shop and making deliveries—in the first grade. By the fourth grade he had a second after-school job, sweeping and cleaning at a pharmacy. The money helped keep the family afloat.

He focused strongly on schoolwork, especially math. When he was in the sixth grade, his math teacher called him a dummy. He struggled to prove her wrong, and became a whiz at math. He graduated eighth in his high school class of 300, and was voted most likely to succeed.

In his senior year he was selected to go to the Presidential Classroom for Young Americans, but he had no appropriate clothes. His uncle took a sport coat and trousers from the unclaimed dry cleaning and cut them to fit.

Sanchez's mother, who had only a fourth-grade education, earned her high school-equivalency certificate at night. "Her constant struggle to educate herself and her sheer determination were remarkable," Sanchez said. "She never allowed herself to be defeated, in any environment. (She) taught me perseverance, dedication, focus and of course the will to succeed."

All her children graduated from college and today all are professionals: a teacher, a high school principal, a pharmacist, a power plant technician and the director of emergency room-technician training at a technical institute.

A professor of military science helped Sanchez, a high school ROTC standout, win a four-year Army/Air Force college scholarship at Texas A&I College in Kingsville, where he earned his bachelor of science degree in mathematics.

Sanchez was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army in 1973. When someone told him he should avoid the 82nd Airborne Division "because ROTC lieutenants didn't stand a chance there, much less a Mexican," he promptly volunteered for the 82nd and served there for the next five years.

Back then his highest ambition was to be an armor battalion commander, something he achieved in the last Persian Gulf War. Sanchez led three of his companies in a stunning raid on Tillil Airfield in southern Iraq, destroying at least 10 MiG fighter planes on the ground, and earning a Bronze Star with a V for valor.

Sanchez's commanding general, then-Maj. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who retired a four-star general and served as the nation's drug czar, said of him: "An officer of enormous personal competence, humility and a terrific tactical sense of organizing and leading combat operations."

McCaffrey recalled that while deployed in Saudi Arabia, on the eve of war, he learned that one of Sanchez's parents was gravely ill, and called him in and told him to go home and deal with it; that he could get back before the war began. "His eyes clouded up with tears; he told me no, I'm not going home until I can take all these soldiers with me, safe, at the end of the war."

Lt. Gen. Eric Olsen, a fellow armor battalion commander in the first Gulf War, said: "Sanchez is one of the most principled, ethical commanders I have ever met. He is not afraid to offer an opinion or take an action that might be perceived as unpopular if it was the right thing to do. I'd trust my flank to him anytime."

Retired Col. Bill Chamberlain, another Gulf War armor battalion commander who served with Sanchez, said: "He appears quiet and introverted at times but that masks a great sense of humor and a very robust and broad intellect. He is a devoted family man to Maria and their four kids. He's one of the true achievers in our Army. He got what he got through hard work, lots of ability and some luck."

Sanchez is one of nine Hispanic generals in U.S. Army history. Six of them hail from South Texas. Asked why this is so, Sanchez said: "It is love of country, a hardworking ethic and a value system that is totally compatible with military life. The Hispanic family is all about loyalty, taking care of each other, perseverance, courage and a willingness to sacrifice. Hard work in the Army is easy compared to being out in the fields picking cotton."

His advice to young Hispanics today: "There are still too many of us who are not finishing high school and not enough going on to college. This must change for America's sake. The key to success is determination, perseverance, education and never allowing anybody to tell you that you can't succeed. The opportunities are there. They must be willing to step out into the night, alone if necessary, unafraid of the future."