Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the first Gulf War, the first African American to serve in both of those senior positions, has died of complications from COVID-19 at the age of 84.
Powell’s family confirmed that “he was fully vaccinated.” His longtime aide, Peggy Cifrino, told NPR that Powell had Parkinson’s disease, and was treated for prostate cancer in 2003. More recently he had undergone treatment for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that can suppress the body’s immune system.
According to a study published in the scientific journal, Leukemia, multiple myeloma can increase the risk for severe COVID-19, but there has been no conclusive evidence that Powell’s previous health issues were a major factor in his death.
“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment,” the Powell family posted to Facebook. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”
“From his front-seat view of history, advising presidents and shaping our nation’s policies, Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong,” President Biden said in a White House statement. “Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else — in uniform and out — and it earned him the universal respect of the American people.”
Colin Powell’s Legacy
Powell came from a humble upbringing. Born April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican immigrants, he saw a path out of hardship when he enlisted in the Army in the early 1960s.
“People have asked me, ‘What would you have done if you hadn’t gone into the Army?’ I’d say, ‘I’d probably be a bus driver, I don’t know,’” Powell told NPR in 2012.
“I liked the structure and the discipline of the military,” Powell told CNN years later. “I felt somewhat distinctive wearing a uniform. I hadn’t been distinctive in much else.”
Powell served as an adviser in South Vietnam as a young Army officer. He told C-SPAN in 1995 that he believed the U.S. was in Southeast Asia at the time “to save the world from communism.”
Before the decade was over, and the Vietnam War still raged on, Powell lost that optimism.
“We weren’t sure how we were going to get out of this war, and we weren’t sure that we were prepared to make the investment that would be required to either win or get out with honor,” he said.
Powell served two tours in South Vietnam during the 1960s, CNN reports. He was wounded twice, including one incident during which he rescued two soldiers after a helicopter crash.
After returning home, Powell attended the National War College, eventually gaining a promotion to brigadier general in 1979. He was appointed as Reagan’s final national security adviser in 1987, and in 1989 named head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by George H. W. Bush. In that role, Powell was involved in the 1989 Panama operation, the 1991 Gulf War and the US humanitarian intervention in Somalia, retiring from the Army just days before the Battle of Mogadishu.
It wasn’t long after retiring from the Army that President George W. Bush asked Powell to serve as secretary of state. Bush described Powell as a “tower of strength and common sense,” NPR reports.
“I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country,” Powell said during his Senate confirmation hearing. “It shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning, if you believe in the values that espouse, you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval.”
Remembering Colin Powell
President Biden said Powell “believed in the promise of America because he lived it. And he devoted much of his life to making that promise a reality for so many others.”
Biden added that Powell “embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat.”
Former President Bush said in a statement that Powell was “a great public servant” who was “such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Powell’s predecessor, remembered him as “a wise and principled man, a loyal friend, and one of the kindest people I have ever met.”
“Although we grew up in different contexts, we bonded over our family’s immigrant stories, our deep love of America, and our belief in the importance of public service,” Albright said in a statement.
Condoleezza Rice, Powell’s successor as Secretary of State following his retirement in 2005, said that he “was a trusted colleague and a dear friend through some very challenging times. Much of his legacy will live on in the countless number of young lives he touched.”