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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State
Colin Luther Powell was born to Jamaican immigrants in New York City, on April 5, 1937. He was educated in the New York City public schools and at City College of New York, from which he received a Bachelor's Degree in geology. While in college he joined the Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and held the ROTC's highest rank, cadet colonel, upon his graduation in 1958.
Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army after college, Powell was one of 16,000 military advisers sent to South Vietnam by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. In 1963, he was wounded by a booby trap while patrolling the border with Laos, for which he received a Purple Heart. During his second tour of duty (1968-1969), he was injured in a helicopter crash, but managed to rescue his comrades from the burning helicopter; this action earned him the Soldier's Medal. (Powell earned a total of 11 military decorations during his two tours, including a Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit.)
After his tours in Vietnam, Powell went on to earn a Master of Business Administration degree from George Washington University, during which time he was promoted to Major.
During Richard Nixon's administration, Powell was assigned to the Office of Management and Budget, where he made a lasting impression on the office's Director and Deputy Director, Casper Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, respectively.
Promoted to Colonel, Powell next served as a battalion commander in Korea, held a staff job at the Pentagon, and then studied at the Army War College. As a Brigadier General, he commanded the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.
During Jimmy Carter's administration, Powell served as assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy. Promoted to Major General, he next became an assistant to Frank Carlucci at the Defense Department during the transition from President Carter to President Ronald Reagan.
After serving as assistant commander and deputy commander of infantry divisions in Colorado and Kansas, Powell returned to Washington as senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger. In this capacity he provided valuable assistance during the invasion of Grenada and the air strikes against Libya. He was also one of only five persons in the Pentagon with specific knowledge about shipments of arms to Iran in return for financial assistance to Nicaraguan rebels (the Iran-Contra Affair), and was, therefore, called to tesify before Congress in a private session. (Powell himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing.)
In 1986, Powell was made commander of the U.S. Army Fifth Corps, stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, but was soon recalled to Washington to serve as deputy to National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci (who had been appointed to the position in the wake of the Iran-Contra Scandal). In 1987, Lieutenant General Powell became Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, in which capacity he coordinated technical and policy advisers during Reagan's summit meetings with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
On October 1, 1989, Powell was named Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George H.W. Bush, and served in this capacity during the 1991 Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations. He continued to serve under President Bill Clinton, until disagreements with Clinton over foreign policy led him to step down. He retired from the Army in 1993 with the rank of 4-Star General.
In 1994, Powell accompanied former President Carter and Senator Sam Nunn on a last-minute peace-making expedition to Haiti which resulted in the end of military rule and a peaceful return to power of the nation's elected government. In 1997 he established The Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at City College of New York, and from 1997 to 2001 he served as founding chairman of America's Promise--the Alliance for Youth, a non-profit organization that challenges Americans to make children and youth a national priority.
In 2001, incoming President George W. Bush chose Powell as his Secretary of State. In this capacity it was his testimony that helped convince members of Congress of the need for U.S. military action against Iraq. Once that action began, however, Powell found himself frequently at odds with Bush's policies in Iraq, and chose to step down after Bush's re-election in 2004.
Since leaving government service Powell has focused on business and other interests. In 2005 he became a limited partner in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and succeeded Henry Kissinger as chairman of the Eisenhower Fellowship Program in 2006. He has also served on the Board of Trustees of Howard University, the Board of Directors of the United Negro College Fund, the Board of Governors of The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and the Advisory Board of the Children's Health Fund.
Colin Powell is married to Alma Vivian Johnson, with whom he has one son, Michael, and two daughters, Linda and Annemarie. His autobiography, My American Journey, was published in 1995.
This page was last updated on April 04, 2017.