Born on April 5, 1937 in Harlem, New York, Colin Luther Powell was the son of Jamaican immigrants that had moved to the US to find a better life for themselves and their children. Although his parents pronounced his name as it was spelled, he has pronounced it the way that we know it today and those in the media and all around him have been happy to oblige. He did very well in school, learning as much as he could about every subject. When he was in high school, he worked for a local furniture store where he picked up Yiddish from the shopkeeper and some of the customers. After he graduated high school, he went on to the City College of New York and gained a Bachelor of Science in geology, and then earned a Master of Business Administration from George Washington University after he did a second tour in Vietnam.
Powell is best known for his role as the first African American Secretary of State, serving under President George W. Bush from 2001-2005 as well as being the National Security Advisor from 1987-1989, the Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command in 1989, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989-1993. To date, he has been the only African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Colin Powell's quotes and citations on leadership have inspired military leaders across the world. But, what many people may not know is his military career that got him to that point.
He joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps during college and describes it as being one of the happiest moments in his life. He found that here, he found something he loved and that he had "found himself". He then joined the Pershing Rifles, the ROTC fraternal organization and drill team that had been started by General John Pershing. Powell won a pen set for a drill team competition that he kept on his desk even after he had become a general himself. During the Vietnam War, he served as a Captain and as a South Vietnamese Army advisor from 1962-1963. He was wounded while on patrol in a Viet Cong area when he stepped on a punji stake. He returned to Vietnam as a Major in 1968 and served in the 23rd Infantry Division. He also served as assistant Chief of Staff of operations for the American Division and was charged with investigating a detailed letter by Tom Glen about allegations of the My Lai Massacre. Although he took criticism of his findings of the massacre, the questions would remain undisclosed to the public.
After his tours in Vietnam, he served a White House fellowship under President Richard Nixon from 1972-1973 and then wrote an autobiography, where he named several officers that he served under that inspired and mentored him. He was decorated for bravery during his second tour as he single-handedly rescued several men from a burning helicopter, one being the commander of the American Division, Major General Charles Gettys. In the Korean War, he served as a Lieutenant Colonel and was very close to General Henry "Gunfighter" Emerson. He said that Emerson was one of the most caring officers that he ever met. In the 1980's, Powell served at Fort Carson, CO and left there to become the senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who he assisted during the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the 1986 airstrike on Lybia. In 1986, he took over the command of the V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany and after the Iran Contra scandal; he became President Ronald Reagan's National Security Advisor. In 1989, he was promoted to General and served as the Commander in Chief, Forces Command until he was selected as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At only 52, he became the youngest officer, the only Afro-Caribbean America to serve in this position. And, in 1989, when he was promoted to General, he became one of only three people to ever reach that position without being a divisional commander alongside Dwight D. Eisenhower and Alexander Haig.
During his time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he oversaw 28 different crises, such as the invasion of Panama, Operation Desert Storm, and the Persian Gulf War. He earned the nickname "the reluctant warrior" because he always tried diplomacy and containment first before jumping to military intervention. From here, his role in helping to create peace throughout the world took on a larger meaning.
Since his time serving in the White House, Powell has put his political power to work for several candidates that he believed in, including Senator John McCain and George W. Bush. He also was charged with creating a peaceful way to rebuild a post-war Iraq after Saddam Hussein had been deposed. Although he resigned as Secretary of State on November 15, 2004, many in the political and military communities still rely on his knowledge, his moderate beliefs, and more to help them promote peace throughout the world and to help them find peaceful ways to end crisis situations.
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