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Black veterans remember Colin Powell and offer him a final salute for the ages

Retired Brigadier Gen. Clara Adams-Ender, the first woman to receive her master's degree in military arts and sciences from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College holds a signed photo of Gen. Colin Powell, the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Retired Brigadier Gen. Clara Adams-Ender, the first woman to receive her master's degree in military arts and sciences from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College holds a signed photo of Gen. Colin Powell, the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ten days before I boarded a plane to Afghanistan in January 2015, I wore my Army Dress Blues to my grandmother's funeral. The last time she saw me in my Dress Blues, I was graduating from West Point after serving as class president. My grandmother, Shirley Berry, was convinced that I would be America's next Colin Powell, the man who'd been her "hope and change" long before the nation had heard the name Barack Obama. She was a mother of three, and Powell was a role model, a God-fearing man whose character was rooted in modesty, discipline, and restraint. Because I loved her, Powell became my role model too.

I thought about her when I learned of Powell's death. And I thought of Black veterans such as Michael A. McCoy, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer who inspired this effort along with the Black Veterans Project: We would connect with fellow veterans to remember not just what Powell meant to the nation, but what he meant specifically to us.

He shaped so many memories for our times

Brig. Gen. Clara Adams-Ender knew Powell as a colleague and a friend. The daughter of a sharecropper in North Carolina, Adams-Ender served 34 years in the U.S Army. She started as a private and rose to brigadier general, and became chief of the United States Army Nurse Corps. Powell and Adams-Ender regularly attended ROCKS meetings together. ROCKS started in the mid-1960s and is named for Brig. Gen. Roscoe Cartwright, who began the group as an informal network for Black military officers.

Adams-Ender reflected on Powell's ability to diffuse any situation and the reason why he was chosen by senior military leaders and U.S. presidents for his many roles.

"I think every now and then someone gets chosen, and Gen. Colin was one of the ones who got chosen.... but it wasn't because he was a yes man, because he never was.... We used to say in the general's world, Colin Powell could tell you to go to hell so smooth you'd enjoy the ride," she recalled.

Powell's disagreements over policy with administration officials was well known throughout his career, from former Secretary of State Madeliene Albright, to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

He mentored men and women

Retired Gen. Larry O. Spencer spent 44 years with the U.S Air Force, rising from airman to a four-star general. He recalled a visit from then-Gen. Powell at Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County, Ill. Then a major, Spencer was the executive officer expected to make sure the coffee was hot and the ink was wet when his Air Force commander — also a general — gathered to meet Gen. Powell, who was the national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan at the time. When Spencer opened the door to greet Powell, to everyone's surprise, the general began chatting with Spencer, asking him about his life and his career. A mentorship began.

"Watching the way he carried himself," Spencer recalled. "Watching the way he was both self-confident but yet humble.... Those were characteristics I did want to have."

Drill Sgt. Joni Jackson renders a salute in formation at Fort Meade.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Drill Sgt. Joni Jackson renders a salute in formation at Fort Meade.

Staff Sgt. Joni Jackson was inspired by Powell's ability to transcend intra-service rivalries. Jackson joined her ROTC program at Morgan State University, a historically Black college in Baltimore. For a Black ROTC cadet like Jackson, Powell was the epitome of leadership. He was also a member of the Pershing Rifles. A military fraternity named after General of the Armies John J. Pershing, a man who didn't approve of Black military members mingling with white women in Europe for fear of backlash at home during WWI.

Jackson recalled seeing Powell at one of the conventions.

"He made me feel like I can achieve greater things than what I thought I had the potential to achieve," she said.

Melissa Bryant, a U.S. Army veteran who is currently deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, remembers reading Powell's book while in ROTC.

"You know, it was especially important for me as a young leader coming up, reading My American Journey as an ROTC cadet and then later following his career as I was starting my own army officer career, and knowing that we're not infallible and that we will make mistakes sometimes on the world stage and that you can own up to that."

Making a "blot" on his record and apologizing

Powell was a powerful selection for President George W. Bush when he nominated him as secretary of state. When Bush asked him to make the case to the United Nations to invade Iraq, Powell said yes. It was a disastrous foreign policy decision that Powell would later admit was a "blot on my record," as he described it in a 2011 interview with Al Jazeera. Powell was one of the only senior administration officials to hold himself accountable for his role in the war. Famously saying, "if you break it, you own it," Powell gave another example of how leaders should own up to their mistakes. It was a powerful move, infused with his modesty and his decency. He showed service and love of country even when it hurt.

Sr. Drill Sgt. Justin Geiger conducts a room inspection at Fort Meade.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Sr. Drill Sgt. Justin Geiger conducts a room inspection at Fort Meade.

When I boarded that plane after my grandmother's funeral and headed to Afghanistan, I met a soldier who would become a dear friend, Cpt. Hisham Yousif. He was a first-generation American raised by Sudanese parents. When Yousif expressed his interest in joining the U.S Army, his parents, reeling from the destruction they saw in Iraq, refused to let him apply to West Point. They did allow him to attend the Virginia Military Institute, however. While a sophomore, Yousif dealt with campus Islamophobia.

He watched Powell on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2008, endorsing Obama. Powell said, "I'm also troubled by — not what Sen. McCain says — but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as, 'Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, 'What if he is?' Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?"

Cpt. Yousif is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago and will be part of the military faculty teaching political science at West Point.

"Colin Powell spoke wise words at the very moment the war on terror all but cut me out of the American picture," he said. "He made me feel like I was included in the mosaic of the American project."

He understood his role in leadership

Carlton Shelley graduated from West Point and would become the first in his family to serve in the military.

Shelley was a member of the Boys and Girls Club when he learned he would be meeting Colin Powell. Shelley was 15 in 2006 when he met him. Shelley was nervous, and surprised at Powell's height. He asked Powell if he would ever run for political office. That was a question Powell had dealt with years before.

Powell turned to the future armor lieutenant, and said, "I would not. Some things are not for everyone and that is not for me. I know that, and I am OK with saying no."

It left Shelley with thoughts of what might have been, but Powell was clear. He was certain of his role and what kind of leadership he provided.

He helped to create a legacy for all

Retired Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard first met Gen. Powell when Pittard was a young captain in Germany. He saw Powell a number of times, including at the dedication of the Buffalo Soldier Monument in 1992.

"The Buffalo Soldiers was — that was two Black cavalry units in the Old West. Colin Powell was a brigadier general. That's a one-star. He was assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. This was in the 1980s. While jogging around Fort Leavenworth, he realized that there was no mention, no monument, no nothing recognizing the distinguished service of the Buffalo Soldiers. So he was determined to do something about that."

He did something as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"Now, what's consistent is he's a leader that people trust," Pittard said.

Powell lifted and inspired veterans of all kinds, and so many who never served.

He helped to show us what it means to serve as we work to strive for a more perfect union.

We render a final salute on this Veterans Day to Colin Powell. Rest in power, Sir.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Members of the Honor Guard carry the casket of the retired Army general, and former secretary of state during funeral services at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 5, 2021.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Members of the Honor Guard carry the casket of the retired Army general, and former secretary of state during funeral services at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 5, 2021.