By Brady Rhoades
Gen. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, spoke with U.S. Veterans Magazine recently about, among other topics, two of his greatest passions: improving the lives of veterans and helping to educate youth —especially underprivileged minorities and immigrants — so they can fulfill their potential.
Gen. Powell was generous with his time and insights, and offered opinions in a down-to-Earth, sometimes humorous way, befitting his description of himself as “just a kid from the Bronx.”
He is from the Bronx and Harlem, the son of immigrant parents, a graduate not of West Point but of City College of New York, an astute and experienced man who knows first-hand the ideal of the American Dream and the importance of diversity in making that dream attainable for all.
He is modest, but his sterling career and myriad accomplishments are a matter of record. He was urged many times by powerful politicians to run for president, and nobody doubted that he was qualified and probably electable.
So we give you Gen. Powell in his own words, starting with the value of veterans as employees.
“Veterans are great employees,” he said. “They know how to show up on time. They’re disciplined. They usually have good command of the language. They’ve been trained in a skill… and that skill may be transferable. They’re taught in basic training the importance of learning quickly and learning well… They’re trainable because the military has taught them to be trainable.”
That’s why so many companies make a special effort to hire veterans.
“The corporate people know it,” he said. “They know there’s good value in hiring veterans.”
As a military man, Gen. Powell took a particular interest in developing young men and women. His post-retirement passion is to provide the necessary resources and training to give youth a quality education. Diversity is a big part of that. He wants those youth to go on to successful careers, and the bigger the talent pool, the more prosperous the country he loves will be. He does much of his work through at least 10 schools bearing his name, including a branch of City College of New York (most of the schools, however, are at the K-12 level).
“STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is vital,” he said. “It’s becoming a more sophisticated world… All kinds of things are happening in the world of work. And in order to be successful in that world you’ve got to get your high school education and beyond that while in high school get the skills you need to work in the world, where it’s increasingly sophisticated, increasingly computerized, increasingly demanding a higher level of education. The other thing about STEM is, you’ve got to keep learning.”
Many of the students whom Gen. Powell is reaching are minorities and immigrants.
“We are enriched by immigration and the culture it brings,” he said.
He recalls that at one of his schools, about 90 percent of the pupils are minorities and about 80 percent are immigrants.
One student once told him, “I’ve changed the history of my family.”
Some become the first in their families to graduate high school, or college. Some are bound for meaningful careers in medicine, law, business, you name it. Others serve their country in the military.
“If you’re looking for a place to learn, a place in which you can serve your country, and if you think you’ve got what it takes, the military is a great choice,” he said. “Most importantly, you will learn about yourself… You’ll hate some of it, you’ll love some of it, but I’m telling you, you’ll come out a better person.”
Gen. Powell’s efforts are an outcrop of his background.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, he was born in Harlem in 1937 and raised in the South Bronx. After graduating from Morris High School, he attended the City College of New York, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in geology.
It was not until he joined the Army ROTC program at the college that he discovered his calling and launched his military career, not long after President Harry Truman had taken the first steps to desegregate the troops. The meritocracy practiced by the military appealed to him.
Opportunity was all he needed.
“I went through my military career always saying, ‘If somebody wants to look down on me because I’m black… it’s not my problem. It is their problem.’ The only thing we care about in the military is performance and potential. If you perform and have potential, you’ll move up. If you don’t, you won’t.”
He said veterans have a pathway to success, “If they have completed their service successfully, and if they have acquired a skill in the service, and if the ‘tough discipline’ issues that were drilled into them with respect to respectfulness, decisiveness, working hard, always improving yourself” are taken to heart.
“And that has nothing to do with the color of your skin.”
He received a commission as an Army second lieutenant upon graduation in 1958 and went on to serve in the United States Army for 35 years, rising to the rank of four-star general.
From 1987 to 1989, Powell served as president Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor. He served from 1989 to 1993 as chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff for both President George H. W. Bush and for President Bill Clinton, and was not only the youngest officer and first ROTC graduate to ever serve in the position, but was also the first African-American to do so. During his time as chairman, he oversaw 28 crises that included the Panama intervention of 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in the victorious 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Under President George W. Bush, he was appointed the 65th Secretary of State. As Secretary of State, he led the State Department in major efforts to address and solve regional and civil conflicts.
Among the many military awards and decorations Powell has received are the Defense Distinguished Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart. His civil awards include two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the President’s Citizen Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal.
In addition, he has also received awards from more than two dozen countries, including a French Legion Honor and honorary knighthood bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.
Powell is the chair of the Board of Visitors of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at his alma mater, the City College of New York. He is the founder and chairman emeritus of the America’s Promise Alliance, dedicated to forging a strong and effective partnership alliance committed to seeing children get the fundamental resources they need to succeed.
Powell, who is married with three children and four grandchildren, has also written two best-selling books, titled “My American Journey” and “It Worked For Me.”
Through and through, be it as a champion of education for kids or as an advocate for veterans, Gen. Powell has been and continues to be a soldier for America.
That’s why getting children off to a good start is part of his America’s Promise program. Gen. Powell enjoys watching shows about animals, particularly mammals, and he compares the early nurturing process of human children to the way lions nurture their cubs, from the den to the safari. One of the chapters of “It Worked For Me” is titled, “We’re mammals.”
“Every child deserves a healthy start,” he said.
Also, “they have to give back,” he added.
It’s why he applies his 13 rules — also outlined in “It Worked For Me” — to his work with children and veterans.
Rule No. 4? It can be done. “Have a positive and enthusiastic approach to every task,” he writes in his book. But don’t be naive. “I try to be an optimist, but I try not to be stupid,” he added.
And it’s why, every Veterans Day, he pays his respects to his fellow veterans.
“Veterans Day is a time when the nation stops and recognizes that we are free, we are a democracy, we are a successful country in the world because we’ve had to fight for it over the years,” Gen. Powell said. “And the ones who do that fighting… they have always shown up to serve the country and now the country has to make sure we are serving them. And Veterans Day is a way to stop, pause and thank the vets, those who are still with us and those who have gone before, especially veterans who were not served — African-Americans. We served for a couple hundred years and the nation was not serving us. But nonetheless we served … because we believed the nation would one day serve us, and that is happening.