Richard E. Cavazos, whose name will replace that of Fort Hood, was a ‘soldiers’ soldier’

The four-star general was an inspiration to many, from entire units of ‘Borinqueneers’ to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

By Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, Voces Oral History CenterNovember 11, 2022 9:44 am, ,

From the Voces Oral History Center:

Next year, Killeen’s Fort Hood will be renamed in honor of four-star general Richard E. Cavazos from South Texas.

The first Hispanic to reach that rank, Cavazos’ 33-year career was marked by loyalty to his troops. Cavazos, who was remembered as a “soldiers’ soldier” when he died five years ago at the age of 88, said he would never ask his troops to do anything he himself wasn’t ready to do.

Alfred Valenzuela, a two-star general from San Antonio, looked to Cavazos as a role model.

“He didn’t have any Hispanics – not that you have to have Hispanics to look up to – but he was leading the way,” Valenzuela said. “I mean, he was the first.”

Cavazos’ beginnings weren’t exactly humble. Born in 1929 as one of five children, his father was a foreman at the King Ranch near Kingsville. He and his siblings would all go on to earn at least one college degree. One brother, Lauro, became secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.

Cavazos wanted others to succeed. Colin Powell credited Cavazos with persuading him not to give up on the Army at a time when Powell had a severe clash with a supervisor. Powell went on to become a four-star general himself and, later, secretary of state.

Cavazos didn’t just inspire at an individual level – he also helped lift up entire units.

In 1951, Cavazos was a newly commissioned first lieutenant assigned to the Korean War, where he was the platoon leader for E Company, 2nd Battalion, 65th Infantry Regiment. Members of the National Guard unit from Puerto Rico, known as the Borinqueneers, had been reorganized after a scandalous court-martial of more than 90 of its members after they abandoned the battlefield.

Later, military analysts would blame problems on a failure of leadership and the language and cultural barrier between the Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans and their English-speaking mainland officers. Cavazos and other officers stepped in to reorganize the 65th Infantry, and it went on to serve with distinction and honor.

In 1976, Cavazos became a brigadier general, the Army’s first Hispanic at that level. Then, in 1982, General Cavazos became the service’s first Hispanic four-star general.

“The four-star generals are the board of directors,” Valenzuela said. “They determine who gets selected for the future. In my case, there were 10,000-plus lieutenants; 22 was made generals. So, as you go through your years, you’re kinda weeded out, and kinda looked at. So, to get to this four-star rank, well, I’ll tell you what, it’s like being a CEO of a corporation. Not that many folks make it.”

Army officials noted that Cavazos had commanded at every level. He finally commanded all soldiers in the continental United States before retiring in 1984. He was highly decorated for his battlefield leadership in Korea and Vietnam and was twice awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the second-highest battle award, among many other recognitions.

In 2021, Congress created a Naming Commission to recommend new names for Army installations named for Confederate generals. The commission received more than 34,000 suggestions, one of which came from the American GI Forum, a Latino military veterans organization. Dallas attorney Domingo Garcia, who leads the organization, says their recommendation of Cavazos highlights diversity in the U.S.

“It is going to be Fort Cavazos, the first military installation in the United States to be named after a Latino or Latina hero, military hero,” Garcia said. “And I think that it speaks to the diversity of America and its strength, and what General Cavazos represented as sort of that first breakthrough warrior general that differentiated him from other people out there.”

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