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Colin Powell


Colin Powell in uniform
Colin Powell
by Russell Roederer

Where did Colin Powell grow up?

Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem, New York on April 5, 1937. His parents, Luther and Maud Powell, were immigrants from Jamaica. While he was still young, his family moved to the South Bronx, another neighborhood in New York City. Growing up, Colin followed his older sister Marylyn everywhere. His parents were hardworking, but loving, and put an emphasis on their children's education.

In high school Colin was an average student getting C grades in most of his classes. He would later say that he goofed off a bit too much in school, but he had a good time. He also worked for a furniture store in the afternoon, making some extra money for the family.


After graduating from high school, Colin attended the City College of New York. He majored in geology, the study of the Earth's composition. While in college he joined the ROTC, which stands for Reserve Officers Training Corps. In the ROTC Colin learned about being in the army and trained to become an officer. Colin loved the ROTC. He knew he had found his career. He wanted to become a soldier.

Joining the Military

After graduating from college in 1958, Powell joined the army as a second lieutenant. His first job was to attend basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia. It was in Georgia that Powell first encountered segregation where blacks and whites had different schools, restaurants, and even bathrooms. This was very different from where he grew up in New York City. The army, however, wasn't segregated. Powell was just another soldier and he had a job to do.

After basic training, Powell got his first assignment in Germany as a platoon leader in the 48th Infantry. In 1960, he moved back to the U.S. to Fort Devens in Massachusetts. There he met a girl named Alma Vivian Johnson and fell in love. They married in 1962 and would have three children.

Vietnam War

In 1963, Powell was sent to Vietnam as an advisor to the South Vietnamese army. He was wounded when he stepped on trap set up by the enemy. It took him a few weeks to recover, but he was fine. He was awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded in action. He returned home for a while and received some additional officer training.

Powell returned to Vietnam in 1968. He had been promoted to the rank of major and was sent to investigate an incident called the My Lai Massacre. During this trip, he was in a helicopter that crashed and caught fire. Powell was thrown clear of the crash, but returned to help pull other soldiers to safety. This act of bravery earned him the Soldier's Medal.

Promotions to the Top

After Vietnam, Powell attended George Washington University and earned his MBA. He was then assigned a job at the White House in 1972 where he met a lot of powerful people. He impressed those he worked with and continued to be promoted. After a tour of duty in Korea, he worked several different postings. He was promoted to colonel in 1976 and brigadier general in 1979. By 1989, Powell had been promoted all the way to a four star general.

Colin Powell and President Ronald Reagan looking at document
Colin Powell and President Ronald Reagan
Photo by Unknown

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush appointed Colin Powell as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is a very important position. It is the highest ranking position in the U.S. military. Powell was the youngest to ever hold this position and the first African-American. In 1991, Powell oversaw the U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf War including Operation Desert Storm.

During this time Powell's methods were called the "Powell Doctrine." He had a number of questions that he felt needed to be asked before the U.S. should go to war. He felt that all "political, economic, and diplomatic" measures should be exhausted before the U.S. would go to war.

Secretary of State

In 2000, Powell was appointed to the position of secretary of state by President George W. Bush. He was the first African-American to hold a position this high in the U.S. government. As secretary of state, Powell played a major role in the Iraq War. He presented the United Nations and Congress evidence showing that Saddam Hussein, leader of Iraq, had hidden stockpiles of illegal chemical weapons called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). The U.S. then invaded Iraq. However, the WMDs were never found in Iraq. Powell later had to admit that the evidence was poorly gathered. Although it wasn't his fault, he took the blame. He resigned as secretary of state in 2004.


Powell has remained busy since leaving government office. He has been involved with several business ventures as well as working with charities and children's groups.

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