After serving his country for four decades and rising to the highest military ranks of any African American before him, Colin Powell has died of complications due to Covid-19, his family announced on Monday. The decorated general was 84 years old. A recent cancer battle had severely weakened his immune system.
Powell had been fully vaccinated and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before his death, according to his family.
Notably, Powell lived a life that broke barriers at every turn. He served as the nation’s first African American national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state.
From Harlem to the White House
Before joining the military, Powell was born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants in 1937. After growing up in the South Bronx and graduating from City College of New York, he joined the newly desegregated army.
Powell went on to serve two decorated tours in Vietnam. Later, towards the end of the Cold War, Powell helped negotiate arms treaties with the Soviet president as President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell helped oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait as the main architect of the Gulf War in 1991. He was also influential in the invasion of Panama in 1989. The purpose of the 1989 invasion was to depose Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, though the United Nations General Assembly had condemned the invasion as a violation of international law. In recent days, Panama has begun to exhume mass graves related to the invasion that killed hundreds of civilians, according to Reuters.
Choosing nation over politics
Powell flirted with a presidential run in the 90s but ultimately left the public eye until 2001, when he became President George W. Bush’s secretary of state. Internally, he pushed back against the administration’s efforts to unilaterally invade Iraq, but he eventually gave a forceful public defense of the invasion to the UN, unaware at the time that evidence of weapons of mass destruction was false.
Despite being an unapologetic Republican, Colin Powell gave a full-throated endorsement of then-Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Powell called Obama a “transformational figure.”
Ultimately, the nation remembers Powell as someone who placed the country above his own political ambitions. He’s risen above politics to become admired by leaders on both the right and left.
By the time of his death, Colin Powell’s awards included: four Defense Distinguished Service Medals, two Army Distinguished Service Medals, an Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, a Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal, a Navy Distinguished Service Medal, a Defense Superior Service Medal, two Legion of Merits, and a Soldier’s Medal, according to the Military Times. Powell also received a Congressional Gold Medal for his service in Kuwait.
“He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam. Many Presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience,” former President George W. Bush stated.