May 30, 1991 12:00 PM

Wherever he goes, people hail him as a four-star hero, but Gen. Colin L. Powell, America’s top warrior, shrugs off such honorifics as far too flattering. There’s something he’d much prefer to talk about, and leaning back from the big desk in his spacious, spartan office in the Pentagon, he eagerly explains how the “buddy reflex” kicked in and made just about everyone in the coalition a hero. On a September visit to Saudi Arabia, he recalls, “Troops were asking how long we were going to be here, when were we going home—just some low-level bitching.” When he returned in January, says the master planner of the U.S. victory, “Morale had risen. They had bonded as a team. They realized. ‘Okay, we’re not going to see Mom and Pop anytime soon. Right now, this is my family. This is what I live for.’ ” Heroism isn’t a conscious thought, he continues. “It comes from caring about the people you’re with.”

Powell, at 54 the nation’s youngest and first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knows firsthand of what he speaks. After all, the ROTC graduate and 33-year Army veteran began his guided missile rise through the ranks with two tours in Vietnam. He was decorated with the Bronze Star for the rescue of four buddies from a downed, burning helicopter.

After a string of commands in the U.S. and Europe and a stint in the White House as national security adviser, Powell finally took his seat at the head of the Joint Chiefs’ table on Oct. 3, 1989, and soon after orchestrated the Dec. 20 invasion of Panama to snare Manuel Noriega. With the gulf victory behind him. Powell has expressed relief that coalition forces acted quickly to head off further Iraqi aggression. “We got enough force in there to let [Saddam Hussein] know he was pulling on Superman’s cape and he better stop,” he told a group of newspaper editors in March. Now, with the victor’s laurels twined around his forage cap, Powell downplays any political ambitions, even refusing to disclose a party affiliation. But that didn’t stop Washington, D.C., power-mongers from chatting him up as a possible Bush running mate in 1992. Embarrassed by the buzz, Powell called Dan Quayle to assure him that he was not interested in his job.

Throughout 20 months of crushing pressure, Powell has remained a model of easygoing grace. “Without exception.” his wife, Alma, 53, has said. “Colin is the calmest person I know…. One night before the war started, when everything on television was leading up to the war, we sat and watched Witness for the Prosecution. It was wonderful.”

Aside from watching old movies with his wife, Powell likes spending time with his three children: Michael, 28. studies law at Georgetown University; actress Linda, 26, was cast in a new CBS series. The Human Factor, slated for the fall; Annemarie, 20, is a junior at the College of William and Mary. The general also relishes tinkering with vintage Volvos. Glancing at his hands, then quickly hiding them under his desktop, he explains that the grease under his nails comes from working the night before on the transmission of a 144, 1972 model.

Whether he’s in dress greens at a White House dinner or in fatigues mixing with the troops, the Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants never forgets his origins. In April he told students at Morris High School, his alma mater in the Bronx, “I remember the auditorium. I remember the feeling that you can’t make it. But you can.” And to an Akron, Ohio, grade-schooler who asked him about his life for Black History Month. Powell wrote back. “I never let my being black be a problem for me—if it was a problem, it was somebody else’s problem, not mine.” Spoken like a winner and a hero.

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