Remembering Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's Lengthy Career: 'A Great American'

Powell's family announced on Monday that he had died of complications due to COVID-19 and multiple outlets reported that he had also been battling cancer

Colin Powell
Colin Powell. Photo: Bachrach/Getty Images

Colin Powell — the first Black U.S. Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — has died from complications of COVID-19 at the age of 84. His family announced the news in a statement issued Monday, noting that Powell was fully vaccinated.

"We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment. We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American," a statement posted to Powell's Facebook page by his family read.

Following the news of his death, multiple outlets including CNN and The New York Times reported that Powell had privately been battling multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.

Born in Harlem in 1937 to Jamaican immigrants, Powell has said he found his calling while attending City College of New York, when he joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and became commander of his unit's drill team.

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He graduated at the top of his class in 1958, having earned the rank of cadet colonel and being commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army.

During his first tour of Vietnam in 1963, Powell was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

He was injured in a helicopter crash during his second tour of Vietnam, ultimately rescuing his fellow service members from the burning helicopter and earning the Soldier's Medal as a result.

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General Powell Presented With Presidential Medal Of Freedom. Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty

In the 1970s, Powell was awarded a White House Fellowship and assigned to the Office of Management and Budget during the administration of President Richard Nixon. He followed his fellowship with with service as a battalion commander in South Korea and, later, with a job at the Pentagon. He then served in roles at the Defense Department under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Powell became a national figure in 1989, when he was promoted to a four-star general and became the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H.W. Bush, and put in charge of the 1990 Gulf War. He continued his role as chairman into the administration of President Bill Clinton, resigning from the position in September 1993.

Colin Powell (left), George W. Bush. Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Sygma via Getty Images

Powell became the 65th Secretary of State in January 2001, serving in that role until January 2005.

Powell's tenure at State would grow to become controversial, particularly due to his role in the Iraq War and the U.S. effort to oust Saddam Hussein.

Speaking to the United Nations in a 2003 speech, Powell laid out the Bush administration's rationale for the invasion of Iraq, saying there was "no doubt" that Hussein had hidden chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. Intelligence would later confirm that such a weapons program was nonexistent.

Speaking to Frontline in 2006, Powell later called that speech "a great intelligence failure."

In his 2012 book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, Powell further detailed what he called the "infamous" 2003 speech, writing that war was already a certainty when he made the remarks.

"By then, the President did not think war could be avoided," Powell wrote. "He had crossed the line in his own mind, even though the NSC [National Security Council] had never met — and never would meet — to discuss the decision."

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Colin Powell Giving Speech at White House. Getty

Powell faced further controversy in 2013, when an AOL email account he maintained was hacked and personal emails he shared with a Romanian diplomat were made public.

In response to questions from reporters, Powell issued a statement saying the friendship with the diplomat "electronically became very personal and then back to normal," adding that he had not been unfaithful to his wife, Alma.

"Over time the emails became of a very personal nature, but did not result in an affair," Powell said the statement.

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Colin Powell(left) and Bill Clinton. Ira Wyman/Sygma via Getty

In 2016, the former secretary of state again suffered an email hack, with leaks showing that he had slammed then-presidential nominee Donald Trump as a "national disgrace" and said of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, "Everything HRC touches she kind of screws up with hubris."

A lifelong conservative, Powell made headlines in January when he said he could no longer call himself a Republican following the deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump and predicated on false claims about the election parroted by Congressional Republicans.

Speaking to CNN's Farred Zakaria, Powell said he would support Trump's impeachment, adding that many Republicans had encouraged Trump's behavior over the years.

"I'm just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat throughout my entire career. And right now I'm just watching my country and not concerned with parties," Powell said.

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Obama And Powell Meet To Press Senate On Nuclear Treaty. Martin H. Simon/Pool via Bloomberg

According to the Military Times, Powell has received more than dozen military decorations in all, including the Legion of Merit.

Powell's civilian awards include two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the President's Citizens Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Powell married his wife, Alma Powell, in August 1962. The two have three children: Michael, Linda and Annemarie.

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General Colin Powell and His Mother Attend a Ceremony in Honor of His Retirement. Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty

Alma stood at her husband's side in a 1995 news conference in which he announced he would not — as had been widely expected at the time — launch a campaign for the U.S. Presidency.

Speaking to reporters at the press conference, Alma said the decision for Colin not to run was one the couple reached "together, as a team, as we have for 33 years."

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