From cattle ranch to general: The incredible journey of Richard E. Cavazos

By Eric Franklin, Fort Cavazos Public AffairsMay 11, 2023

Photo courtesy of the Cavazos family.
(Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Cavazos family.) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT CAVAZOS, Texas — Gen. Richard Edward Cavazos was the first Hispanic four-star general in the United States Army. He was born on Jan. 31, 1929, in Kingsville, Texas, where he was also raised. He graduated from Texas Technological College, now Texas Tech University, in 1951 with a degree in geology, but he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Army.

After his college graduation, Cavazos received his commission. During the Korean War, he led the renowned 65th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Borinqueneers, the Army’s only all-Hispanic unit attached to the 3rd Infantry Division.

Throughout his 33 years of distinguished service in the military, including serving in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Cavazos demonstrated exceptional leadership and bravery. Because of this, he earned multiple service medals, including two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Silver Star, five Bronze Stars and a Purple heart. The Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest military award that can be given to a member of the Army for extraordinary heroism in combat.

Retired Lt. Col. Ed Mullens expressed his admiration for the remarkable achievements of Cavazos.

“I thought he was a tremendous man,” Mullens said. “What a hero.”

Cavazos firmly believed in the moral ascendancy of leaders and emphasized the importance of a commanding officer who could instill complete trust and faith in their troops to achieve victory. This guiding principle influenced his actions throughout his military career, including in his early years in South Korea. During the Korean War, he was a platoon leader of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 65th Infantry Regiment.

(Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Cavazos family.) VIEW ORIGINAL

One example of Cavazos’ commitment to this principle was demonstrated in February 1953. Leading a small group of Soldiers, Cavazos encountered enemy fire but continued alone to capture a wounded enemy soldier who had been abandoned following an earlier skirmish. Despite the danger, Cavazos’ determination to uphold his beliefs and maintain his Soldiers’ trust was unwavering. He was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery.

Cavazos exhibited his leadership skills once more in June 1953. He directed his troops in an attack on Hill 412, which was held by the enemy, as part of a strategy to protect Outpost Harry, a crucial defensive position in the vicinity. The assault was met with fierce enemy artillery fire, causing many American Soldiers to suffer casualties. Despite this, Cavazos defended Outpost Harry for three arduous hours. When ordered to withdraw to friendly lines, he refused to abandon the fallen and injured American Soldiers, repeatedly rescuing them, even though he was wounded. The Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery and selflessness.

In the autumn of 1953, Cavazos returned to the United States and was stationed at Fort Hood (now Fort Cavazos), Texas. He continued to serve in the military, rising through the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel. In 1967, he was deployed to Vietnam, where he assumed command of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment.

Cavazos once again demonstrated his unwavering commitment to the safety and well-being of his troops. While serving near Loc Ninh, he organized a counterattack against enemy forces, risking his safety. He fearlessly led his troops in an assault on the enemy’s hillside position, constantly exposing himself to hostile fire as he moved among them. His strategic artillery fire was so effective that the Viet Cong insurgents fled. Recognizing his exceptional leadership, he was honored with a second Distinguished Service Cross.

In addition to his combat experience, Cavazos held several important positions in the Army. He served as the commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea, commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Germany and commander of the United States Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Georgia. He retired from the Army in 1984 after 33 years of service.

Cavazos’ selflessness and bravery in putting the safety of his fellow Soldiers first earned him a place in history as a true American hero and an inspiration to all those who have served in the United States military.

During a formal officers’ dinner, Cavazos shared a powerful story that deeply resonated with the other officers. The general’s heartfelt words about not wanting to leave his troops showed bravery and loyalty and stirred emotions in those present, leaving many in tears. Mullens was struck by the general’s eloquence and the genuine care he expressed for his troops. This encounter marked Mullens’ first experience with Cavazos, who left an indelible impression on him.

“When he finished telling that story, he was much more eloquent than I,” Mullens said. “Every man in that room had tears in his eyes. You stuck the heart.”

Photo courtesy of the Cavazos family.
Photo courtesy of the Cavazos family. (Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Cavazos family.) VIEW ORIGINAL

General James D. Thurman, who learned from Cavazos, spoke about the general’s profound impact on his career. Thurman expressed his gratitude for the lessons in soldiering and professionalism he learned from Cavazos. According to Thurman, soldiering is an affair of the heart, and Cavazos exemplified this with his unwavering dedication and courage. Thurman praised Cavazos’ strong character, saying he truly had a Soldier’s heart.

“I owe him a great deal for what he taught me as a professional, and he taught me about soldiering,” Thurman said. “We often say soldiering is an affair of the heart, and he had the heart.”

Reflecting on his experience with Cavazos, Thurman shared that he had taken part in an exercise with Cavazos and was struck by his exceptional leadership qualities. Thurman emphasized the importance of remembering the lessons that Cavazos taught and his impact on shaping the military’s approach to soldiering and combat.

“He understood the human dimension of warfighting, and he understood the importance of training,” Thurman said. “He understood the importance of readiness, discipline and standards, and we must always remember what he taught us.”

Cavazos’ legacy extends far beyond his bravery in battle. His dedication to teaching and mentoring earned him a place in developing the Army’s Battle Command Training Program for senior officers, now known as the Mission Command Training Program. His impact on the program was profound, as he passed on his extensive knowledge and experience to future generations of Soldiers.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell, among others, credits Cavazos for guiding him during a challenging period in his career. However, it was the countless Hispanic Soldiers who regarded him as a role model and mentor that left the most significant impression.

Cavazos retired in 1984 after achieving the distinction of becoming the Army’s first Hispanic four-star general in 1982. In his retirement, he continued his selfless service to the Army, serving as a mentor to many senior leaders who followed him. Cavazos passed away in 2017 at 88 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Following his passing, an outpouring of tributes from Soldiers who were influenced and touched by his leadership showed the indelible mark he left on today’s Army.