The Defining Generation
Defining Human Rights
General Colin L. Powell
American Dream is that promise of "liberty and justice for all"
that assures every American both equal rights and equal opportunity. These
are embodied in the notion that in this country, any person can grow up to
be President. Perhaps nowhere has the validity of that mantra been better
vetted than in the life of the young Black man who, by the sweat of his
brow and a few unexpected opportunities ascended to become the
highest-ranking soldier in the
product of humble beginnings, young Powell grew up in a modest but stable
1931 the Powell family welcomed their first child, a daughter they named
Marilyn. She would grow up to be a bright student bound for college and a
40 year teaching career. When Colin Luther was born five-and-a-half years
later, it would be to mature in the shadow of his successful older sister.
"She was sort of the star of the family," Colin told the
Colin was six years old Luther and Maud decided to move across the river
Young Colin's developing personality was influenced by his parents personal involvement in society. Of course there was the regular Sunday morning ritual of attending services at St. Margaret's Church where, he says, "We had our own pew." Luther served as a senior warden, Maud headed the alter guild, and older sister Marilyn played the piano. Young Colin was still searching for his own niche.
Brotherly love and concern for others however, was much more than a religious diatribe for the Powell family. Luther had a habit of inviting the man who delivered oil to their third-floor apartment inside for a cup of coffee. Whenever he was home the door was always open to provide the mailman a brief respite and a friendly conversation. While it was customary in the neighborhood to tip the garbage men at Christmas time, Luther Powell was prone to invite them inside and gather with them around the table for a drink. He was a sociable man who mingled well with strangers and to whom there were really no strangers. Decades later his son would demonstrate a similar openness and friendly nature towards others.
Though as a young man in the Army Colin Powell would complete every educational course and every advanced school in the top of his class, in reflection he is quick to note that he was not a "shining star" in the classroom as a boy. When he was passed from the third to the fourth grade at P.S. 39 he was placed in the bottom of the class. He describes that moment by noting, "Catastrophe struck the Powell family."[ii]
a 2000 interview with a new generation of young students he summed up his
early life by noting: "I was pretty average as a kid. I wasn't
particularly good at sports, and I ran a straight C average most of the
time. I wasn't one of the big kids on the block, but I enjoyed my
childhood growing up in
The one thing that young Powell did take an interest in during his boyhood was church, not for its theological teachings bur rather for its structure. "My inability to stick to anything became a source of concern to my parents, unspoken, but I knew it was there," he wrote in 1993. "I did, however, stand out in one arena. I was an excellent acolyte and subdeacon, and enjoyed my ecclesiastical duties. Here was organization, tradition, hierarchy, pageantry, purpose--a world, now that I think about it, not at all unlike the Army. Maybe my 1928 prayer book was destined to be Field Manual 22-5, the Army's troop drilling bible."[iv]
was in deference to the wishes of his parents and the peer pressure of
family, rather than a driving quest for knowledge, that Colin Powell
applied for admission to both
Colin Powell's transformation from shiftless and aimless teenage boy to America's highest ranking general began innocuously enough. In his first semester at CCNY he did fairly well with his general courses but a summer course in mechanical drawing, the first related to his chosen major, left him academically confused. He changed his major to Geology, evoking immediate concern from the family. Sister Marilyn was now married after graduating from Buffalo State Teachers College and was embarking on an admirable career that would see her spend more than 40 years in the classroom helping young boys and girls learn. In her shadow, young Colin still was motivated to succeed, but he just couldn't seem to find where or how. Returning for the fall semester at CCNY he joined the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Course) and perhaps for the first time in his young life, he knew where he belonged. Immediately the uniformity…not just the uniform, the tradition, and the structure filled a void that appealed to his own sense of identity and need. He also learned that it was a job at which he was very good.
"There came a day when I stood in line in the drill hall to be issued olive-drab pants and jacket, brown shirt, brown tie, brown shoes, a belt with a brass buckle, and an overseas cap," he later wrote. As soon as I got home, I put the uniform on and looked in the mirror. I liked what I saw…The uniform gave me a sense of belonging, and something I had never experienced all the while I was growing up; I felt distinctive."[v]
Powell joined the ROTC drill team called the Pershing Rifles (PR) because it was considered the best. He says "The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved. I became a leader almost immediately. I found a selflessness within our ranks that reminded me of the caring atmosphere within my family. Race, color, background, income meant nothing. The PRs went to the limit for each other and for the group. If this was what soldiering was all about, then maybe I wanted to be a soldier."[vi] Members of the Pershing Rifles were also distinctive in the ROTC program by their easily recognized blue shoulder chord and shining emblem.
In the summer of 1957 before returning to CCNY for his Senior Year Cadet Powell spent six weeks training at the U.S. Army post at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was the young man's first trip far from his native New York, and his first introduction to the South. He enjoyed the military training; marching, shooting, learning camouflage and map reading. His skills as a drill leader with the Pershing Rifles resulted in his being named acting company commander. At the end of the program the visiting cadets stood in ranks on the parade ground as various awards were presented for marksmanship, physical training, etc. Cadet Powell finished second to a cadet from Cornell for honors as the Best Cadet for the entire program. Later, while turning in his gear before returning home a white supply sergeant took him aside and said, "You want to know why you didn't get best cadet in camp?" Though disappointed, Powell had not even thought about this but the sergeant explained, "You think these Southern ROTC instructors are going to go back to their colleges and say the best kid here was a Negro?"
It was Colin Powell's first REAL confrontation with racial prejudice, an experience vastly different from the melting pot community in which he had grown up. "I did not want to believe that my worth could be diminished by the color of my skin,"[vii] he notes. Driving home with two white comrades from ROTC young Powell became even more acutely aware of a problem in the country he loved. When they occasionally stopped for a break he found that there were three restrooms marked: "Men," "Women," and "Colored."
In his final year of college, and despite a less-than-stellar academic performance that saw him graduate with a "C" average, Powell did achieve a major goal. As a Senior he became the Pershing Rifles' Company Commander with the rank of cadet colonel, the highest a cadet could achieve. He was further designated as a "Distinguished Military Graduate" which afforded the chance to enter the active duty Army with a regular, rather than a reserve commission. On June 9, 1958, he took the oath to become an Army second lieutenant. Graduation from CCNY the following day was anticlimactic, his bachelors degree in geology "an incidental dividend."
Until graduation from college and entrance into the military Powell lived at home with his parents. Their influence on his life was poignant and positive, and would subsequently be reflected in his own adult life. "'My parents did not recognize their own strengths. It was nothing they ever said that taught us. It was the way they lived their lives. If the values seem correct or relevant, the children will follow the values. I had been shaped not by preaching, but by example, by moral osmosis."[viii] That lesson provided Powell with what might singularly be defined as his mantra for successfully commanding others: Lead by Example!
Second Lieutenant Colin Powell was an infantry officer who, as he had as a Cadet in CCNY's Pershing Rifles, pushed himself personally and possessed a natural sense of leadership. He requested and completed both Airborne training, making the requisite jumps that placed silver wings on the breast of his uniform, and Army Ranger training that placed a semi-circular and highly regarded "Ranger Tab" on his shoulder. In January 1959 he was assigned as a platoon leader commanding 40 men in Company B, 2d Armored Rifle Battalion, 48th Infantry. His AO (area of responsibility) was the Fulda Gap in Germany. Late in his tour, while still a lieutenant, he served temporarily as Commanding Officer of Company D. Wherever Powell went his natural abilities propelled him into a leadership role, though he himself sometimes now humbly chalks it up to "lucky breaks."
When First Lieutenant Powell returned from Germany in January 1961 to begin a two-year tour of duty with the 5th Infantry Division at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, it was to watch a young new Senator from that very state take the oath of office to become President. John F. Kennedy, with his call to duty and service, left an indelible impression on Powell's mind. A few months earlier in Germany Powell, now age 23, had at last been old enough to vote and he cast his absentee ballot for John Kennedy. "Not much searching analysis went into my choice," he recalls. "In those days, (Kennedy) and his party seemed to hold out a little more hope for a young man of my roots."[ix]
Unlike the private business sector where a young man fresh out of college can ascend to the board room of his father's business, in the military EVERYBODY starts at the bottom. It is important to a process that prizes, even demands superior leadership. While a tendency to lead may be somewhat innate the ability to lead WELL is learned. At Fort Devens he learned an important lesson from an unusual assignment he dubbed the "Stork Patrol."
Assigned as adjutant to the 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, Powell might well have taken pride in the fact that he was a lieutenant serving in a captain's slot. His commander was Lieutenant Colonel William C. Abernathy, a devout Southern Baptist with a clean-cut and moral approach to everything. Powell recalls the harshest word he ever heard the man utter was "golly."
One day Abernathy instructed his adjutant to set up a system of "Welcome Baby" letters. Powell's job was to insure that in the event that the wife of any man in the battalion had a baby, that the soldier would received a congratulatory letter from the commander the following day. Furthermore, a "Welcome to the World" letter would be simultaneously addressed to the infant. In the grander scheme of daily events Powell, still somewhat skeptical of the project, slacked off for one of the only times in his career. After a sincere but profanity-free rebuke from the boss he went back to work and launched the program.
"To my surprise," Powell wrote, "once we had the system in place, we started getting positive feedback. The soldiers were impressed by Abernathy's thoughtfulness. Mothers wrote us that they appreciated being considered part of their husband's Army life. The babies were not talking yet, but I imagine, somewhere out there, a thirty-five-year-old woman is wondering how a letter making her a member of the 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, got into her baby book."[x]
For Powell it was a lesson in leadership that would mark his career: be faithful in the small things and attentive to the needs of your men. Good leaders don’t command from a distance but reach out and touch the lives of those who follow, making them realize that each of them is important. Decades later when he was the highest ranking man in American military two young Special Forces Soldiers from Fort Bragg knocked on the door of Quarters 6, the residence of the military's highest ranking general. They were in town and simply wanted to meet the man they greatly admired. Powell's daughter-in-law answered the door and advised the soldiers that the family was having a birthday party. They thanked her and turned away. When she told the General who had rung the bell he rushed out to catch them, introduced himself, and then invited them in to join in the party.[xi]
The following November as a favor to a friend Lieutenant Powell agreed to a blind date. That was how he met Alma Johnson, a pretty young Southern girl from Birmingham, Alabama. Alma worked with the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing and was a graduate of Fisk, the "Harvard" of traditionally black colleges and universities. It was generally assumed that Fisk Girls would meet and marry a young doctor graduating across the street at Meharry Medical School. Though still single, the least of her romantic inclinations was to marry someone in the Army. When Colin and Alma met however, a spark was kindled and they spent the evening enjoying each other's company. Colin returned to base to think about the intriguing young lady he had met entirely by chance and called her the very next day to ask for a second date.
The following month Alma returned to Birmingham to spend Christmas with her parents. She arranged her return itinerary to Boston by way of New York and spent the New Year's holiday meeting Colin's family. "I was sure Alma would love my relatives," he wrote decades later, but maybe not immediately. A well-bred girl from a proper Southern family needed to be exposed gradually to nosy, fun-loving West Indians." Luther and Maud had raised their children to be largely open to everyone. Something of a soul-searching examination of the family values had been done in 1953 when Colin's sister Marilyn fell in love with Norm Bern, a White man from Buffalo. At a time when interracial marriage was frowned on in the North and deadly in the South the Powell family and the Bern family believed love could overcome all barriers and indeed Marilyn and Norm's marriage lasted and gave the Powells two grandchildren.
Following the holidays and into the Spring of 1962 Colin and Alma became inseparable, spending as much time as two people with different careers in cities nearly fifty miles apart could spend. Alma's mother was the founder of the Girl Scouts for Black girls in Birmingham and in February she came to New York for a scouting program. Colin and Alma drove down to meet her and introduce her to Colin's parents. Except for Colin's choice of a military career, it appeared that they were on track for marriage and an ordinary life in the Land of Opportunity.
In August Lieutenant Powell received word he was up for promotion to Captain and that he was going to be sent to Vietnam. He drove to Boston to break the news to Alma that he would be gone for a year. She was crushed and believed the two might be best-served to end the relationship at that point. It is catchy to say that "absence makes the heart grow fonder" but in truth, absence can be brutal, especially for the wife and family of a soldier. It is often forgotten but certainly true that "they also serve who watch and wait." Waiting frightened Alma who had already been through one broken engagement and as yet had no commitment from Colin beyond the promise of weekend dating.
Powell drove back to Fort Devens, crushed. He knew he loved Alma and wanted to spend his life with her. He also had a commitment and military service is not the kind of job where you can give a 30-day notice of intent to quit. That night lying lonely in his bunk he pondered all this and, the very next day drove back to Boston to propose marriage. To his joy and relief Alma said "Yes" and the two were married on August 24th in Birmingham.
Because of the quickness of it all, and because the wedding was to be in Alabama, at first Luther and Maud felt they could not attend. Marilyn and her white husband Norm were undaunted by the growing racial violence in the South and determined to be part of the happy moment which then prompted Mr. and Mrs. Powell to change their minds. "If they lynch Norm we all ought to be there. I might have to buy off the lynchers," was Luther Powell's reasoning.
One month later Powell said goodbye to his comrades at Fort Devens and moved with Alma to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he was to undergo specialized training for his Vietnam Service. Upon arrival at Fort Bragg the newlyweds began looking for housing they could rent in a safe, middle-class Black neighborhood. Nothing could be found and Colin sadly prepared to send his wife home to Birmingham for the duration of his training. Fortunately he ran into an old friend from his days in Germany, Joe Schwar, who was serving with the Army's Special Forces at Fort Bragg. Joe and his wife Pat insisted that Colin and Anna share their modest three-bedroom duplex with their three young sons. It was a gift of kindness never lost on Powell, and a personal measure of the Schwar's integrity. They received some heated retribution from neighbors abhorred by the fact that the Schwar's had brought two Black people into their lily white community.
On December 23, 1962, Captain Colin Powell left Birmingham for Vietnam after driving his wife to her hometown to spend the next year living with her parents. The farewell was difficult, more so because Anna was pregnant. Powell was going to war little knowing that in his absence his wife herself was returning to a "war zone." During the race riots of the Summer of 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, became perhaps more dangerous even that Vietnam.
Twenty-five-year-old Captain Powell approached his new assignment with idealistic naiveté. "I was excited and very happy," he told the American Academy of Achievement in 1998. "I'd been selected by my government to go to a combat zone and to serve a purpose that was noble. And we were fighting communism and we were going to try to help the South Vietnamese protect themselves from communism and defend their way of life. Let them make their own choice as to how they should be governed. And so, it was a very noble undertaking and it was wrapped in the mystique of the Kennedy era."[xii]
In a small outpost in the A Shaw Valley near Laos, not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail that moved Communist troops and supplies into Vietnam, he met those people. Captain Vo Cong Hieu was Powell's counterpart, Commander of the 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry Regiment, 1st Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Division. Powell was there to advise and assist Hieu in training the battalion's 400 ARVN soldiers, including accompanying them on combat patrols. Upon arriving at the small compound cut out of dense jungle in the A Shau Valley Hieu explained to his new American Adviser in decent English, "(This is) Very important outpost.
"But why is it here?" Captain Powell asked, looking at the expanse of tropical jungle and nearby towering mountains from which the base camp would be vulnerable to enemy artillery.
""Outpost is here to protect the airfield," Hieu replied proudly as he pointed to the crude runway from which the Marine helicopter that had just delivered Powell to another world and another time began taking off.
"What's the airfield here for?" Powell asked.
"Airfield here to re-supply outpost," he responded. "The base camp at A Shau was there to protect an airstrip that was there to supply the outpost."[xiii] Such reasoning perhaps marked the later real war when American soldiers came in great numbers, 2.7 million of them. Indeed in 1968 following the massive Communist Tet Offensive such ambiguity was evident in the American statement, "We had to destroy (the city of) Hue in order to save it." Logical or illogical, proactive or reactive, right or wrong, American soldiers from Colin Powell to the last to come home did so for one reason, they were ordered there to serve by the country they loved.
Many of the soldiers that Captain Hieu commanded and Captain Powell trained were conscripted, lacking motivation and often basic education, but Powell noticed they "were willing, obedient, and hid their feelings behind a mask of polite submission." The Vietnamese with their simple lifestyle are an easy people to come to love. Each morning children who would not be yet kindergarten age in the United States were entrusted with a family's prized possession, a water buffalo, that they would take out into the fields and return with in the evening. Cultural differences were also different…and fascinating. When calling another Vietnamese one didn't wave them in with an upturned arm; that was how you called cattle. Rather, with arm out and palm down you beckoned another towards you like a mother gathering her young. Vietnamese men were comfortable in public displays friendship and affection; it was not uncommon to see two soldiers in uniform walking together and holding hands. It was a simple, non-sexual demonstration of friendship with no untoward connotations.
Captain Powell's task was to help Captain Hieu turn one such battalion of young Vietnamese soldiers into skilled and professional soldiers. Although in some such situations an ARVN commander with an ego resented his American counterpart there was no such rift in the 2/3 Infantry regiment and Powell remembers Hieu with fondness. "We were together about six months. He was just a wonderful, dedicated soldier--very professional," he told me during an interview for this chapter. Inevitably the two leaders became very close, building a friendship that would result in an unusual reunion decades later.
One month after arriving in Vietnam Powell joined Hieu for an inspection of their troops and then led them outside the base camp and into the jungle. Although Hieu was the commander to whom the men looked for leadership, the ARVN Captain looked to his American Advisor for wisdom and guidance. It was a relationship that worked well on that first combat mission, as well as many subsequent such forays into enemy territory. On the sixth day they found the enemy, or rather the enemy found them. Hearing gunfire and rushing forward Powell found one wounded and one dead ARVN; the enemy had fired from ambush and then melted back into the jungle.
Occasionally these patrols meandered through the jungle to break out into a Montagnard village. One day while patrolling through a village six small children gathered around the two leaders of the patrol, Captains Powell and Hieu. Someone took a picture of the smiling children with the soldiers and gave copies to both men. After leaving Vietnam Powell would often recall his first tour of combat duty by pulling out the photo taken that day and remembering his good friend. When Vietnam fell in 1975 he thought of Hieu with grave concern, knowing in all probability that the foreign officer with whom he served and forged a friendship was either dead or a prisoner of the Communists.
Late in May Powell was on yet another patrol when he heard the sound of a small observation plane and received word via radio that it was coming in with a special delivery airmail package. After locating the patrol in the tall saw grass below the pilot threw out a package tied in an easily visible yellow handkerchief. Powell ran to retrieve it, a small box of Reese's peanut butter cups with an envelope below marked "Baby Letter." He tore it open and the photograph of an infant boy fell out…it was Michael Powell…Colin was a father. For seven more months that photograph was as close as the soldier would be to his first child.
Once when asked by school kids how he got the Purple Heart medal Powell replied, "Something kind of dumb!"[xiv] It happened on patrol in July. While moving forward towards the head of his column Powell felt his foot slip through loose soil and then the excruciating pain of a bamboo spike piercing the sole of his boot and the flesh of his right foot. Punji stakes were sharpened bamboo spears, frequently coated with human feces and hidden in small holes that were camouflaged. They were a rudimentary but common, and certainly effective booby trap favored by the NVA and the Viet Cong (VC). Powell felt embarrassed to have stepped in a punji pit and tried to limp along without letting his Vietnamese soldiers know he had been hurt. When he could bear the pain no longer he fashioned a crutch from a branch and staggered in agony back into camp with his troops. Infection was already setting in and he was evacuated to Hue.
Following recovery Powell completed his Vietnam tour at headquarters and was rotated home in November, one month early "because we were doing so well over there." It had been an important step, he had commanded soldiers in combat and, although it had been in an advisory role to foreign allies this was a career-enhancing experience that was valuable to his resume. Furthermore, he was not only a combat leader but a wounded combat veteran. While perhaps the scar of a through-and-through punji stake wasn't as macho and impressive as say, the scar of a bullet in the shoulder, it still merited award of the Purple Heart.
Of that war in Vietnam Powell noted in his autobiography, "In spite of my misgivings, I was leaving the country still a true believer. I had experienced disappointment, not disillusionment. I remained convinced that it was right to help South Vietnam remain independent, and right to draw the line against communism anywhere in the world. The ends were justified, even if the means were flawed."[xv]
The return to Birmingham to see his wife after months of separation, and the opportunity at to last hold his infant son for the first time, made coming home an emotional time. Ironically, 11 months earlier he had stepped off a plane in Saigon to enter a foreign land unlike any he had ever witnessed. Now, stepping of the plane in Birmingham it was again like entering a foreign land for in his brief absence America had changed drastically. En route to Birmingham and while waiting for his flight in Nashville, Tennessee, Powell watched in shock as President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. The situation was also bad in Birmingham, a city that had been rocked by a summer of violence Powell had been unaware of while serving half-way around the world.
After a short leave to spend time with his family, Powell was assigned to Fort Benning for the Infantry Officers Advanced Course; a necessary career move for further promotion. While looking for housing in Georgia so he could bring his wife and son to live near post, one night he stopped at Bucks Barbeque to get something to eat. After being told that because he was Black he would have to pick up his hamburger from a back window he refused and angrily drove away. "When I came home from Vietnam, having served my nation, having sworn an oath to the Constitution to serve my nation, I came home and was denied access to restaurants and refused service in hotels and motels," he recalls of those days. "If my skin was white, or if I could shine it up a little and put a hat on my head so it wasn't showing, as long as I could pretend I wasn't black, then I was free to enjoy these benefits. The fact that I was a soldier of the nation was irrelevant."[xvi]
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act prohibiting such discrimination. That same summer Captain Colin L. Powell returned Buck's Barbeque. This time he drove up to the front, placed his order, and received his meal like any white man would have. Despite problems at home America was beginning to make progress. The same could not be said for the war in Vietnam.
As a Major, Colin Powell returned to combat duty in May 1968. It was the same year that for the first time the number of Americans topped half a million. When Powell had served there five years earlier there had been only 16,300 American soldiers in Vietnam. He left behind in America his young family: Alma, Michael, and 3-year-old daughter Linda in order to serve in a war that even he now had misgivings about…if not the rightness of the cause then at least the manner in which it was being directed.
Major Powell was initially assigned as Executive Officer of the 3d Battalion, 1st Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division operating in Quang Ngai province south of Chu Lai. The position of Executive Officer is largely an administrative post but it is an important one, for the XO serves his Battalion Commander much like the Vice President serves the President of the United States. The XO is essentially second-in-command.
While Powell was performing his duties in the boonies back at Division Headquarters General Charles Gettys saw a picture of one of his field officers in a story in Army Times. Before assignment to Vietnam Powell had been selected for the prestigious Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Missouri, where he had graduated second in a class of 1,244 other eager career officers. Realizing that he had a "rising star" in the Division, Gettys brought Major Powell into Division Headquarters and made him his G-3 (Operations and Planning), a post usually assigned to a senior lieutenant colonel. Gettys' Chief of Staff was something of a legend, Colonel Jack Lemaster Treadwell, a 49-year-old career officer who had earned the Medal of Honor during World War II.
On November 15 an element of the Americal Division located a major enemy base camp deep in the jungle and assumed control of the area. Because it had served as an enemy Headquarters for operations in the area General Gettys ordered his soldiers to clear a helicopter landing zone and flew out the following day to personally visit the site. With him was his Chief of Staff, his G-3 Officer, two other aides, and the helicopter crew. As the Command chopper tried to effect a landing in the hastily cleared and small LZ, the rotors became entangled in nearby branches and the chopper crashed 25 or more feet to the ground. Powell and one of the chopper crew quickly bolted free and raced for safety, knowing not if or when the chopper might suddenly burst in flames. Looking back at the tangled wreckage they then noticed that they were the only two who had escaped; the others remained trapped in the wreckage. While Private First Class Bob Pyle returned to extricate the pilot and co-pilot, Powell rescued his barely-conscious general who suffered from a broken shoulder. Then he returned again, heedless of the potential for an explosion at any moment, to rescue an American hero and Medal of Honor recipient. He returned a third time to assist in the rescue of the others.
Today Powell humbly defers credit for that daring act to PFC Pyle and other soldiers who raced to the crash scene. The fact remains that he personally rescued two men and assisted in the rescue of the others, all while suffering from a fractured ankle that he had suffered in the crash. For his non-combat heroism on that day he was awarded the Soldier's Medal. While low in precedence, it is one of the Army's most respected awards. Only the Medal of Honor has been presented to fewer soldiers.
When Major Powell returned home after his second Vietnam War tour it was to temporarily hang his uniform in the closet and go back to school. The Army had selected him for a fully-funded program at George Washington University to pursue a Masters Degree in business. He began classes just two months before the largest anti-war rally of the period when, in November, a half-million young people, most of them college students much like Powell himself, converged on Washington, D.C. to protest the war.
After gaining his M.B.A. at G.W.U., during which period he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Powell returned to service in uniform at the Pentagon. The following year he was encouraged to apply for the prestigious White House Fellowship. Powell was comfortable back in uniform and working at the Pentagon, and might well have declined the opportunity had he not been enthusiastically pushed toward it by others who saw his potential. He grudgingly filled out the forms, mailed in the paperwork, and went back to work to forget the matter. He was one of 130 applicants, out of more than 1,000, who were called to interview for the prestigious fellowship. He then was one of 33 national finalists, and ultimately, one of 17 selected.
For a year Colin Powell served as a White House Fellow, learning nuances of Washington political life that would become instrumental and critical in a future as yet undefined and was perhaps indeed unimaginable. By 1973 he was a two-tour decorated combat veteran, an M.B.A., a Pentagon alumni, and a White House Fellow. He was eager to return to soldiering, to obtain the kind of command critical to further promotion and wound up in the cold and tenuous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) of South Korea. Though during his first Vietnam tour as an Advisor he had basically commanded a battalion of ARVN soldiers, in Korea he would command his first battalion of American soldiers. Serving under Major General Henry E. The Gunfighter Emerson he was assigned as Battalion Commander for 1st Battalion, 32d Infantry in the Eighth Army's 2d Infantry Division.
Powell devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography to The Gunfighter, a fighting general of uncommon and unorthodox ability. In Korea in 1973 general was faced with demoralized soldiers, many of whom had become embittered by the downward spiral of the American effort in Vietnam and a resurgence of racism in troops who spent long days of boredom manning frigid outposts across the border from the North Koreans. To combat racism The Gunfighter insisted that all soldiers under his command watch the movie "Brian's Song" that detailed the true story of the friendship between two professional athletes, Gayle Sayers and Brian Piccolo, one Black and the other White. To occupy his men and give them more positive pursuits than fighting among themselves he established "combat sports." His "combat football" pitted entire platoons (40 men) against each other on the soccer field under conditions sometimes called "jungle rules" in Vietnam…meaning there were no rules. It was unorthodox, certainly not a sport where one remained injury free for long, but the troops loved it. It was macho like their leader, physically exhausting, team building, and gave everyone a sense of pride.
In the spirit of World War II legend General George S. Patton, The Gunfighter addressed his troops in blatantly profane motivational speeches that the men loved. With strong battalion commanders like Lieutenant Colonel Powell, all of whom admired their boss, he turned a Division that was on the verge of imploding on itself into an Army of proud, disciplined and highly motivated warriors. Powell also reinforced under General Emerson the lesson he had learned with the "stork patrol," the importance of taking an interest in the care and welfare not only of the group but of the individual soldiers under his command. Lieutenant Powell's battalion especially excelled and members of his unit won Soldier of the Month recognition five times in a row.
Powell described his developing philosophy in leadership under The Gunfighter by stating, "If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude." Three years later when Powell, a full Colonel, was serving with the 101st Airborne Division, General Emerson retired. He insisted that Colonel Powell command his retirement ceremony. On the day that Powell watched one of the men he most admired hang up his stars, he gave orders to a large formation on the parade ground. Before the ceremony began The Gunfighter had privately issued Powell some rather unusual orders. During the ceremony, with thousands of soldiers standing before him in ranks, General Emerson gave the signal, looked straight at Powell and commanded "Now."
"Officers--and officers ONLY," Powell ordered in obedience to Emerson's private instructions, "about face." Then he looked quizzically at his mentor.
In a booming voice his The Gunfighter ordered, "Officers, salute your soldiers!" Powell recalled it as a powerful moment in his own life, a true reflection of the role of a leader and exactly which members of the army deserved the most to be saluted.
In 1977 Colonel Powell returned to Washington, D.C. to serve in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Carter Administration. In December of 1978 he received the silver star of a Brigadier General. In just twenty years the average kid from the Bronx whose future had seemed uncertain had become a big fish in a big pond, an achievement he could not have imagined himself. Sadly, earlier that same year Luther Powell passed away and did not witness the heraldic moment.
Over the following decade Powell received a second and then a third silver star. He gained a reputation for excellence and for dedicated service and in December 1987 was appointed and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan. When Reagan left office after two terms which restored a great sense of patriotism to a nation that had splintered in the 1960s, Powell was named Commander in Chief FORSCOM (Commander in Chief, Forces Command.) The following year the third consecutive Commander in Chief that Powell was privileged to personally serve, President, George H. W. Bush made history with an Executive Appointent. On October 1, 1989, Colin L. Powell became the first Black American in be confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). It was the singularly highest position any man in military could hold; the only higher position is held by a civilian, the President who is Commander in Chief.
To say that on that day Colin Powell became the ultimate role-model to young Black men in America would be a true, but narrow view of his success. The average kid who found what he enjoyed doing and did it well became a role model to young men and women of all races, validating that no matter how big, how smart, or how talented they might be that there was unlimited opportunity for everyone in America. His confirmation as the first Black Chairman was also a striking example of how far American had progressed in just 29 years. The generals and colonels who served directly under the Chairman were Black, White, Red, Yellow and Brown, and many of them were Women. It was a tribute to a new generation of Americans.
Among the letters of congratulations Powell received after his appointment was one from a foreign but familiar name. When a picture of two soldiers, one American and one Vietnamese and six Montagnard children fell out of the envelope he recognized it instantly. Vo Cong Hieu had written to congratulate his comrade of a war now 27 distant, noting that the appointment was richly deserved. He also wrote, "I find myself in a difficult position." Chairman Powell's comrade had indeed been taken prisoner when the war ended in Vietnam, suffering 13 years of reeducation in a Communist prison. Although Hieu and his wife had been approved by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok to come and find a new home in America, the couple had children and grandchildren, seven in all, who would have to be left behind. Powell was moved by his memories and, now in a position that provided him extensive knowledge of the political process and many powerful friends, he came to his former comrade's assistance. The entire family was approved, immigrated to America and settled in Minneapolis.
Two years later America's senior military officer was to speak in Minneapolis, and before the meeting Hieu approached. Powell recognized him immediately and the two embraced. Powell led his Vietnamese friend and now-American brother to a seat directly in front of the dais where, during his speech the Chairman introduced him to thunderous applause. When I interviewed General Powell in July 2007 he spoke excitedly of another trip to Minneapolis in the coming months that would enable him and Hieu to spend time together once again.
Chairman Powell only had one day to settle into his new office before world affairs forced him into his first confrontation--an upheaval in Panama under the dictatorial and violent rule of Manuel Noriega. In a brief but decisive military action in December known as Operation Just Cause, Powell directed a stunning American victory in Panama. It was the result of the valor and dedication of soldiers in the field. In contrast to Vietnam, victory was possible also because of lessons in leadership and policy America's highest ranking soldier had learned there. "The lessons I absorbed from Panama confirmed all my convictions…since the days of doubt over Vietnam," he wrote. "Have a clear political objective and stick to it. Use all the force necessary, and do not apologize for going in big if that is what it takes. Decisive force ends wars quickly and in the long run saves lives."[xvii]
The victory in Panama capped a previous decade under President Reagan when Americans began gaining a new patriotic pride and appreciation for our military. Chairman Powell became an engaging figure on television as he explained the war to the public, and a leader who was greatly admired. If there was any criticism of his first performance as Chairman it came in January when he flew to Panama for a firsthand look and proudly told his troops, "Goddamn, you guys did a good job." The profanity, in contrast with his clean and gentlemanly appearance shocked some at home when they saw the evening news, but in Panama where the men on the ground were doing the dirty job of mopping up, his comment was a source of pride. The Chairman could be as down-to-earth as the man in the field and, more importantly, he was proud of what they had achieved.
In his first tour in Vietnam Lieutenant Powell observed privately that it would take a half-a-million soldiers to win that war. Five years later when the numbers reached his predicted mark it was too late…the war was already lost. Within months of the victory in Panama the Chairman was confronted with a new threat when on August 2, 1990, the Army of Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. Within five days Chairman Powell began deploying troops to the region under Operation Desert Shield, designed to protect Saudi Arabia from invasion. Commanding the troops in the region was a grizzled and sometimes profane officer not unlike The Gunfighter, General Stormin' Norman "The Bear" Schwarzkopf.
In keeping with his belief in decisive force, Chairman Powell restrained public pressure to act swiftly, instead building up his forces. Where it had taken virtually eight years to marshal a half-million-man presence in Vietnam, Powell achieved exactly that in less than six months, building his decisive force around a strong coalition of allied nations under the leadership of President Bush. On January 12, 1991, Congress authorized the use of force to evict the Iraqi forces from Kuwait and five days later air war operations were launched to prepare the way for a subsequent ground action. Only forty-five days later the clearly defined goals were achieved, Kuwait was liberated, and the "Gulf War" (Operation Desert Storm) ended in resounding victory.
In 1992 William Jefferson Clinton was elected President of the United States, the first "Baby Boomer" to ascend to the Oval Office. Until his retirement in 1993, it was to be the fourth consecutive Presidential administration, two Republican and two Democrat, that he would personally serve.
For 34 years General Powell served others by serving his nation, deploying twice to help the people of South Vietnam and once to ensure the security of South Korea. As Chairman he had directed two highly successful American-led actions on behalf of the people of Panama and then of the Persian Gulf. Certainly it was more than enough service for one lifetime, and at the time of his retirement he was an American hero, a well-respected public figure, and one of the most experienced leaders in our nation. His 1995 autobiography, My American Journey made him a best-selling author shooting to Number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. There was no further achievement perhaps than to seek election as our Nation's first Black President, and many in America urged him to run. Humbly he declined.
Retired General Colin Powell had spent a lifetime serving others, including the people under siege by cruel governments abroad. Reflecting on his own life and the opportunities that had allowed him to build an unbelievable American Dream, he was struck by the plight of young boys and girls at home who needed similar opportunity. It is noble to rally behind and serve people in foreign, third-world countries, but Powell knew that charity begins at home and turned his efforts to humanitarian causes at home.
In 1996 Colin and Anna Powell, now enjoying retirement after decades of service, were approached by George Romney. The Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Nixon, former Chairman of American Motors (1954-62) and Michigan Governor (1963-69) was a man known for calls to public service. In 1970 the successful businessman and politician elucidated his beliefs by stating: "Americans have four basic ways of solving problems that are too big for individuals to handle by themselves. One is through the federal government. A second is through state governments and the local governments that the states create. The third is through the private sector - the economic sector that includes business, agriculture, and labor. The fourth method is the independent sector - the voluntary, cooperative action of free individuals and independent association. Voluntary action is the most powerful of these, because it is uniquely capable of stirring the people themselves and involving their enthusiastic energies, because it is their own - voluntary action is the people's action. As Woodrow Wilson said, 'The most powerful force on earth is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people.' Individualism makes cooperation worthwhile - but cooperation makes freedom possible."
In 1997 the Powells attended a Summit in Philadelphia, birthplace of our nation, to address perhaps our most pressing problem in light of Secretary Romney's own call to action. As a result of that Summit "The America's Promise Alliance" was born with the eager support of President Clinton and former Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush. (Nancy Reagan represented her ill husband.) The challenge of America's Promise was to make American youth a national priority. It was not to be just one more in a myriad of humanitarian or charitable organizations, but an alliance of existing organizations to unite them under one "big tent" with a common goal. General Powell was selected to lead the organization and it became his primary focus.
When Powell returned to public life five years later as our Nation's first Black Secretary of State, Alma Powell became Chair of America's Promise and continues to serve in that capacity to this day. Her husband remains one of its most vocal and hard working supporters; the five promises to America's youth mirroring the privileges that contributed to his success.
The declarations of that summit, signed by five American Presidents, sets forth among other things, "As each of us has the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, each of us has an obligation to give something back to country and community--a duty to take responsibility not just for ourselves and our families, but for one another. We owe a debt of service to fulfill the God-given promise of America, and our children." Those five promises are:
1) CARING ADULTS: All children need support and guidance from caring adults in their families, at schools and in their communities. These include ongoing, secure relationships with parents as well as formal and informal relationships with teachers, mentors, coaches, youth volunteers and neighbors. Caring adults are the cornerstone of a child’s development — and for the other four Promises that build success both in childhood and adulthood. Parents come first. But children also need to experience the support from caring adults in all areas of their lives.
2) SAFE PLACES: All children need to be physically and emotionally safe wherever they are — from the actual places of families, schools, neighborhoods and communities to the virtual places of media. They also need a healthy balance between structured, supervised activities and unstructured time. It’s important for children to be safe. But safe places alone are not enough. It is equally important for children’s development that these places engage them actively and constructively.
3) A HEALTHY START: All children need and deserve healthy bodies, healthy minds and healthy habits. These result from regular health check-ups and needed treatment, good nutrition and exercise, healthy skills and knowledge, and good role models of physical and psychological health. With increased attention on such issues as upsurges in childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes, Americans have a raised awareness of the importance of a healthy start as a critical developmental resource in a child’s life. Nevertheless, we are falling far short of keeping this Promise. Nine million young people today remain without health insurance. Babies born in the U.S. are less likely to survive until their first birthday than those in 27 other industrialized nations. One in 11 high school students reports attempting suicide.
4) AN EFFECTIVE EDUCATION: All children need the intellectual development, motivation and skills that equip them for successful work and lifelong learning. These result from having quality learning environments, challenging expectations and consistent guidance and mentoring. The number-one predictor of whether you will be successful in life is whether you graduate from high school. In today’s competitive global economy, effective education is more important than ever before. Yet more than 25% of our students do not finish high school. The figure is nearly twice as high for African American and Latino students.
5) OPPORTUNITIES TO HELP OHERS: All children need the chance to make a difference in their families, at schools and in their communities. Knowing how to make a difference comes from having models of caring behavior, awareness of the needs of others, a sense of personal responsibility to contribute to the larger society, and opportunities for volunteering, leadership and service. Providing young people with opportunities to make a difference through service instills not only a sense of responsibility but of possibility. Young people want to be involved in making the world a better place; however, far too many lack meaningful opportunities to contribute.
It is fitting that five such noble promises became the basis of the major efforts of Alma Powell and her husband Colin. As children the first four certainly marked their future as being bright, not because they were privileged but because they were simply offered the opportunity to grow up with loving parents, in safe communities, with good health and educational opportunities. It is further notable that throughout their lives they have exemplified the last.
The experiences of life teach us that in helping others we help our selves. In giving of ourselves we gain. In caring for others we demonstrate our love for our own lives. There is perhaps no greater proof of that than the average kid in the Land of Opportunity who could have grown up to be President, General Colin L. Powell, U.S. Army (Retired.)
American Academy of Achievement, Interview May 23, 1998
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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