WASHINGTON – Colin Powell, the trailblazing military commander and first Black secretary of statewhose career was defined in part by America’s two wars with Iraq, died Monday of COVID-19-related complications. Powell reportedly had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that makes it difficult to fight infections.
Powell, 84, was born in New York City to Jamaican immigrants, served four U.S. presidents and rose to become the first African American and the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer. He died Monday at Walter Reed National Medical Center. His family said he was fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” Powell’s family said in its statement.
The news of his death rippled across the country, sparking an outpouring of grief and praise for his decades of public service.
“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called Powell “a tremendous personal friend and mentor to me.”
“There’s a hole in my heart right now as I think about his loss,” Austin said. “I will miss him dearly.”
Powell served two combat tours in Vietnam before climbing the ranks and overseeing the first Gulf War in 1990-1991, when American and allied forces drove Iraq’s invading military from Kuwait. Powell’s distinguished military career was later tarnished by his tenure as the nation’s chief diplomat when President George W. Bush led the U.S. into the second Iraq war in 2003, based on faulty assertions that Saddam Hussein’s government had weapons of mass destruction.
Powell later called that a “blot” on his career.
Powell was born in 1937 in Harlem and grew up in the South Bronx. At 16, he enrolled in the City College of New York and joined the Army ROTC.
When he put on his first uniform, “I liked what I saw,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, “My American Journey.”
Powell served in Vietnam in 1962 as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion and then again in 1968 as a battalion executive officer and assistant chief of staff of operations. During his second tour, Powell received the Soldier’s Medal for rescuing fellow soldiers from a burning helicopter despite being injured himself.
He steadily rose through the ranks over his decades-long career, becoming national security adviser to President Ronald Reaganand a four-star general. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush selected Powell to be the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was 52, which made him the youngest officer to serve as the nation’s highest-ranking military appointee.
“Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Secretary of state during Iraq War
Powell retired from the military in 1993 but returned to public service in 2001, this time as the nation’s top diplomat, tapped for the post by President George W. Bush.
It was perhaps the most difficult test of his professional life. As the country grappled with the aftermath of 9/11, Powell often found himself at odds with more hawkish members of the Bush administration, chiefly Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
He initially resisted the push to invade Iraq, hoping to keep the U.S. focused on its military campaign in Afghanistan, which harbored the al-Qaida terrorist network behind the 9/11 attacks. But Powell eventually lent his considerable clout to the decision, delivering a lengthy speech to the United Nations in which he laid out U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein’s government had chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear program.
No weapons were found, and the Iraq War cost billions of U.S. dollars and thousands of Iraqi and American lives.
“I’m the one who presented it to the world, and (it) will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It is painful now,” Powell said in a interview with ABC News in 2005.
After he retired from the military, Powell said he was “still a general at heart,” even as he flirted with the idea of running for public office amid encouragement from some Republican leaders and strong public approval ratings.
Although he never made the switch to electoral politics, Powell became increasingly outspoken about his own beliefs – and increasingly disenchanted with the Republican Party.
In 2008, Powell endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president ahead of his historic victory.
“I think he is a transformational figure, he is a new generation coming onto the world stage, onto the American stage,” Powell said in announcing his decision. He said the GOP had “moved more to the right than I would like to see it.”
In a statement Monday, Obama lauded Powell as “an exemplary soldier and an exemplary patriot.” Obama said he was “deeply appreciative” that Powell not only endorsed him but also worked to counter conspiracy theories that Obama was Muslim.
“The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian,” Powell said at the time. “But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no, that’s not America.”
In Monday’s statement, Obama said: “At a time when conspiracy theories were swirling, with some questioning my faith, General Powell took the opportunity to get to the heart of the matter in a way only he could.”
When Donald Trump was elected, Powell was more scathing in distancing himself from the Republican Party.
Leaders from across the political spectrum mourned Powell’s death and remembered him as a man of integrity who broke racial barriers.
“Colin was a trailblazer and role model for so many: the son of immigrants who rose to become National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of State,” former Vice President Cheney said in a statement. “I’m deeply saddened to learn that America has lost a leader and statesman.”
George W. Bush called him a “great public servant” going back to his time in Vietnam.
“He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice,” Bush said. “He was highly respected at home and abroad.”
Former President Jimmy Carter noted that Powell worked on many issues outside the limelight, including promoting democracy in Haiti and Jamaica.
“His courage and integrity will be an inspiration for generations to come,” Carter said.
Powell is survived by three children, two grandchildren and his wife, Alma.
Contributing: The Associated Press