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If you like Colin Powell's story, you might also like:
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George Bush,
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Mikhail Gorbachev,
Daniel Inouye,
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Colin Powell can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Colin Powell also appears in the videos:
President George Bush: Lessons of Leadership,
What is a Leader?

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Colin Powell in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Justice & the Citizen
Black History Month

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Colin Powell
Colin Powell
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Colin Powell Interview (page: 3 / 9)

Former Secretary of State, United States of America

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  Colin Powell

How did your service in Vietnam affect you, personally and professionally?

Colin Powell: I went to Vietnam as a professional soldier.

Colin Powell: When I got orders to Vietnam in the summer of 1962 I was excited and very happy. I'd been selected by my government to go to a combat zone and to serve a purpose that was noble. And we were fighting communism and we were going to try to help the South Vietnamese protect themselves from communism and defend their way of life, let them make their own choice as to how they should be governed. And so, it was a very noble undertaking and it was wrapped in the mystique of the Kennedy era. And I was one of the first group of advisors, actually the second group of advisors to go in, about 15,000 of us at that time. And so, for a young 25 year-old infantry captain this was it, this was the thing to do.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Colin Powell Interview Photo
And so I went and did my job and I did it for a year. I came back after a year to rejoin a family that I really didn't know, a son I'd never seen who was born while I was gone, and a wife who I'd known for nine months and been away from for a year. And going back to that, but also going back with a little bit of concern about Vietnam. Because I couldn't see that we'd made much progress in the year I was there, tromping through the jungles. And the enemy seemed to have the initiative and the advantage.

I came back thinking, "This is a very big problem, and it's going to take a lot more than what we're doing. And it's not clear that the South Vietnamese are really up to the task, or really represent the kind of government that we should be that anxious to defend." They had a lot of work to do, to prove themselves to their own people. And to prove themselves worthy of the kind of support that we were increasingly giving them.

You were wounded on that first tour, weren't you?

Colin Powell Interview Photo
Colin Powell: Yes. There was a punji stick on my first tour. I was a young infantry captain, as I mentioned, and I was going through the jungle with my Vietnamese battalion, just myself, one other American and four Vietnamese soldiers and we essentially lived in the jungle. And we were heading to the Special Forces camp, American Special Forces camp one day to come out for a little while.

The Vietcong, the communist enemy, would place these traps, nothing more than a hole in the ground, a couple of feet deep with bamboo spikes planted in them, just like out of a Tarzan movie. They would cover the spikes with a little bit of buffalo dung, making sure they were quite infectious, and then just put something over it to cover its presence. Usually we knew how to spot these, but that day I just didn't. I stepped off the side of the trail, and stepped into it. My right foot went down into it and one of the spikes caught the edge of my foot. The sole of my boot missed it and it caught the instep, went all the way through. Of course, I felt it rather immediately and jerked my foot out, which pulled it right back out.

Colin Powell Interview Photo
It was so quick, I didn't realize how injured I was. I just knew that I'd punctured my foot. I didn't realize how serious it was, so I didn't want to say anything. We just kept marching towards the Special Force camp. In about 15 minutes I realized that I had done something real bad. In about 30 minutes I was having difficulty walking and had to use a stick. Fortunately, we were close to the camp and I was able to get there. The Special Forces medics cut my boot off and they could see my foot was purple by then. The spike had gone all the way through, from the bottom to the top, and then come right back out, totally infecting the wound as it made the wound.

They got me out of there and I went to division headquarters; there was a doctor there. It wasn't anything that required anesthesia, they used a rather straightforward method of disinfectant. They put a cloth through the bottom of my foot. Used a probe to push it through the top, put antibiotics over it and cleaned it out, kind of like a shoe shine rag, which was not a terribly pleasant experience. When they had a clean section in there, they just cut off both sides and left it in there for about a week to fight the infection. A week later I was pretty much okay.

Between tours in Vietnam you were stationed at Fort Benning, where you experienced segregation in a very real sense. Could you share some of those terrible reminiscences? What was not open to you?

Colin Powell Interview Photo
Colin Powell: It was more disappointing than terrifying. Fort Benning is a large Army installation in Columbus, Georgia. In those days, the '50s, and well into the early '60s, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and the Voting Rights Act of '65, it was in the heart of the segregated south. On base it was wonderful. You could go anywhere, live anywhere, do anything you wished to do. But as soon as you went over the hill, and down into Columbus, Georgia, it was a totally segregated existence.

The story I've told many times is of coming home from Vietnam in 1963, having been away for an entire year, and my wife had had a son while I was away. I was busy trying to get a home ready for my family in the area. I couldn't get on base yet, the housing wasn't available. So I found a place in Phoenix City, Alabama, which was not a great place to live as a black in those days.

Colin Powell: One night after working on the house, I tried to buy a hamburger at a drive-in place in Columbus. I knew I couldn't go in, I didn't try to go in, I just tried to order it on the little speaker box for it to be brought out. The young lady came out to take my order, the way it was done in those days, and she looked in the car and she asked me if I was Puerto Rican, and I said "No." And then she asked me if I was an African student studying at the Infantry School. I said, "No, I'm not an African student studying at the Infantry School, I'm an American." And she said, "I'm terribly sorry, but I can't bring it out to the car, you'll have to get out and go around to the back." And I said, "Thank you very much, no thanks," and I drove off.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

That wasn't terrifying, it was just deeply, deeply hurtful and disappointing.

What affect did that experience have on your own resolve to achieve?

Colin Powell: If anything, it encouraged me, motivated me, caused me to find ways to demonstrate to people who held such beliefs that their beliefs had to be incorrect, had to be a lie.

Colin Powell: There's a great story from the Civil War, where a Confederate general is writing to the Confederate government in Richmond, and it has to do with the issue of allowing blacks to serve in the Confederate army, or conscripting them for the Confederate army. And this Confederate general writes to Jefferson Davis and he says, "Don't let this happen. Whatever you do, don't let this happen. Because if blacks can wear a uniform with brass buttons, and a belt with a brass buckle, and if they can go and serve and lay down their lives, they are the equal to us. And if that is the case, the whole theory of the Confederacy is a lie. So whatever you do, don't let black men serve." The history of the black experience in the United States military for 300 years is a repetition of that. Black men were always willing to serve, as were black women, in the hope that their service as equals, willing to lay down their lives, and fight for what their country believed in, would transfer over into civilian life. They were disappointed for most of our history. But with each conflict, things got a little bit better, until we finally reached the period where a black man, or a black woman, can rise to the top. So the answer to your question is, yes, it motivated me to fight back and to prove that if I'm your equal in performance, then segregation has to be a lie.

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This page last revised on May 15, 2012 14:45 EDT
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