General Colin Powell: Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: James Moeller
If you are looking for someone who accomplished a lot of firsts, General Colin Powell is your man. He was the first African-American general to become Army Chief-of-Staff and the first African-American Secretary of State. Read on about this remarkable public servant.

Early Life, Education & Military Career

You can't make someone else's choices. You should not let someone else make yours. --Colin Powell

The above quote speaks volumes about the life of Colin Luther Powell, and those words spoken by him evoke sentiments of leadership. Colin Powell's life was indeed rife with choices that made him one of America's well-known and respected leaders.

Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5th of 1937 in the predominantly African-American section of Harlem in New York City. His parents, Luther and Maud Powell, immigrated from Jamaica for a better life in the United States of America. They later moved to the South Bronx where the boy grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the nation. Even though he was surrounded by poverty and gang activities, he purposed that he would not become part of that scene and rose above his circumstances to obtain a noted and honored career. He graduated from Morris High School in 1954 with no definite plans for the future. It was as a geology major at the City College of New York that he began looking for something more interesting to do. After about six months into his enrollment, he joined the US Army ROTC program. Powell said about his first exposure to military life that he ' . . . not only liked it but was pretty good at it.'

This became evident when be became Commander of his ROTC unit and won awards in the Drill Team, known as, 'The Pershing Rifles.' Powell now felt that he had purposeful direction in his life. He graduated from City College of New York in 1958 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army.

General Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

As an officer at Ft. Devins, MA, he met and married Vivian Johnson. The couple would have three children. In 1962, Powell was ordered to Vietnam as part of a team of military advisers charged with training ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) officers and men. While on duty, he was wounded by a booby trap and earned the Purple Heart. Before the end of his tour, he would also earn a Bronze Star. He attained the rank of Major during his second tour of Vietnam. By the time he had returned to the United States, Powell had earned 11 military decorations, including the Legion of Merit.

Accomplishments During the Reagan & Bush Administrations

Powell returned to America and enrolled at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He earned an MBA there and worked with the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) in 1972. His performance was exemplary, and he caught the eye of the future secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. In 1973, he was assigned to a tour in Korea where he commanded a brigade as a Colonel. Upon his return to the states, he attended the US Army War College and was made a Brigadier General. Owing in part to his work back in the OMB days with now Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, General Powell was made Senior Military Assistant in 1983, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. In 1989, President Reagan appointed General Powell to be National Security Adviser.

In April of the same year, Colin Powell earned the rank of 4-Star General and by August was nominated by then President George Bush to become the first African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his term as Chairman (1989-93), he was involved in a number of famous military operations including: Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and the Persian Gulf Crisis. In 1993, after a noted military career of over 35 years, General Colin Powell retired from the military.

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