Colin Powell, first Black secretary of state, dies from COVID-19 complications
WASHINGTON - Colin Powell, the pioneering military commander and first black secretary of state, whose career was partly shaped by America's two wars with Iraq, died Monday of complications related to COVID-19. Powell has reportedly been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that makes infection difficult to fight.
Powell, 84, was born in New York City to a Jamaican immigrant, served four US presidents, rose to the rank of first African American and the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest-ranking military officer. He died on 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," said Powell's family statement.
News of his death spread across the country, sparking a flurry of grief and praise for his decades of public service.
"Colin embodied the highest ideals of both the warrior and the diplomat," President Joe Biden said in a statement. "Above all, he was committed to the strength and security of our nation."
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called Powell "a great personal friend and mentor to me".
"I have a hole in my heart right now when I think of his loss," said Austin. "I will miss him very much."
Powell completed two combat tours in Vietnam before advancing the ranks and overseeing the first Gulf War in 1990-1991 when American and Allied forces drove the invading Iraqi military from Kuwait. Powell's stellar military career was later marred by his tenure as the nation's chief diplomat when President George W. Bush led the US into the Second Iraq War in 2003 based on false claims that the Saddam Hussein administration had weapons of mass destruction.
Powell later called this an "eyesore" of his career.
Powell was born in Harlem in 1937 and grew up in the South Bronx. At 16, he enrolled at 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 1995 in his autobiography "My American Journey".
Powell served in Vietnam in 1962 as an advisor to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion and again in 1968 as battalion executive officer and deputy chief of staff. During his second tour, Powell received the Soldier's Medal for rescuing comrades from a burning helicopter despite being injured himself.
Over the course of his decade-long career, he rose steadily to become National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan and a four-star general. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush elected Powell as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was 52 years old, which made him the youngest officer to serve as the nation's highest-ranking military commissioner.
"Mine is the story of a black child with no early promise from an immigrant family with limited means who grew up in the South Bronx," he wrote in his autobiography.
State Secretary in the Iraq War
Powell retired from the military in 1993 but returned to the civil service in 2001, this time as the nation's chief diplomat elected to the post by President George W. Bush.
It was perhaps the most difficult test of his professional life. While the country struggled with the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Powell often found himself at odds with more radical members of the Bush administration, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
He initially resisted the attempt to invade Iraq in the hope of focusing the US on its military campaign in Afghanistan, which hosted the al-Qaeda terrorist network behind the 9/11 attacks. But Powell eventually gave the decision considerable leverage, delivering a long speech to the United Nations setting out US claims that Saddam Hussein's administration had chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear program.
No weapons were found and the Iraq war cost billions of dollars and thousands of Iraqi and American lives.
“I am the one who presented it to the world and (it) will always be part of my record. It was painful. It's painful now, ”Powell said in a 2005 interview with ABC News.
Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial he said may contain anthrax when he presented evidence of alleged weapons programs in Iraq to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003.
Politics in transition
After retiring from the military, Powell said he was "still a general at heart" despite flirting with the idea of running for public office under the encouragement of some Republican leaders and strong public approval ratings.
Though he never switched to electoral politics, Powell became more and more open about his own beliefs - and increasingly disaffected with the Republican Party.
In 2008, Powell supported Democrat Barack Obama before his historic victory as President.
"I think he's a transformative character, he's a new generation coming on the world stage, on the American stage," Powell said when announcing his decision. He said the GOP "moved further to the right than I would like to see".
In a statement Monday, Obama praised Powell as "an exemplary soldier and an exemplary patriot." Obama said he was "deeply grateful" that Powell not only supported him but also countered conspiracy theories that Obama was a Muslim.
"The correct answer is, he's not a Muslim, he's a Christian," Powell said at the time. "But the really correct answer is, 'What if it is him?' Isn't it true to be a Muslim in this country? The answer is no, it's not America. "
In Monday's statement, Obama said: "At a time when conspiracy theories were floating around and some were questioning my beliefs, General Powell took the opportunity to investigate the matter in ways that only he could. "
When Donald Trump was elected, Powell distanced himself even more devastatingly from the Republican Party.
President Barack Obama speaks to reporters after an arms control meeting with former Secretary of State Colin Powell at the White House in December 2010.
In 2019 he argued that the party had to "get a grip" and change course. He said last year that he would vote for Biden in the 2020 election, calling Trump "dangerous to our democracy".
Leaders from across the political spectrum mourned Powell's death and remembered him as a man of integrity who broke through racial barriers.
"Colin was a trailblazer and a role model for so many: the son of immigrants, who rose to become national security adviser, chairman of the joint chiefs and foreign minister," former Vice President Cheney said in a statement. "I am deeply saddened to learn that America has lost a leader and statesman."
George W. Bush has called him a "great public servant" since his time in Vietnam.
"He was such a presidential darling that he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice," Bush said. "He was highly regarded at home and abroad."
Former President Jimmy Carter noted that Powell worked on many subjects outside the limelight, including promoting democracy in Haiti and Jamaica.
"His courage and integrity will inspire generations to come," said Carter.
Powell leaves three children, two grandchildren and his wife Alma.
Contribution: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colin Powell dies of COVID-19, had blood cancer at the age of 84
In this article:
Former US Secretary of State and retired four-star general
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