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If you like Colin Powell's story, you might also like:
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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?

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Justice & the Citizen
Black History Month

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Colin Powell
Colin Powell
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Colin Powell Interview (page: 4 / 9)

Former Secretary of State, United States of America

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  Colin Powell

What other experiences do you recall that were important to you in Vietnam? Especially the second tour of duty.

Colin Powell Interview Photo
Colin Powell: I remember crashing in a helicopter and getting all wrapped around trees in the jungle. That's certainly memorable. I was the operations officer of an infantry division, the American Division, and one day we were out with the commanding general and the chief of staff going to visit a unit that had just discovered a North Vietnamese arms cache. It was in the deep, triple-canopy jungle, near the Laotian border. The only way to get into the site was to fly over the canopy and look for the opening that had been cut by the troops who were in the jungle. They had cut a hole just big enough for a helicopter to literally come down through the opening like an elevator.

We were hovering over this opening as the pilot examined it, an then he started his descent. He was the commanding general's pilot, and he hadn't been into places like this as often as some of the other pilots, who might have been less experienced, but who had more experience in going up and down in this canopy. For whatever reason, as he started down, he lost a little bit of control and...

Colin Powell: The helicopter shifted to the right and then it shifted to the left, and to this day, sitting in the left-hand seat in the rear I could see the blade hit the tree, and suddenly go from moving very rapidly -- which is what keeps you in the air -- to stopping instantly, which converts you from a helicopter into a falling object, more like a rock. And so, we fell about a hundred feet or so and hit hard. Stumps all over the place, and the helicopter started breaking apart, engine coming down through the passenger compartment, engine still turning, broken blades spinning, cockpit area crashed, or smashed up, and the danger of a fire.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Colin Powell: I knew I was hurt, but not too badly, so I unbuckled, ran out, looked back and saw that the general was still inside. Went in and helped him out, helped some others out. And then it started to smoke, but it wasn't burning. And then I and another young soldier went back and I thought the pilot was seriously injured, his back was. The general's aide was in the middle of the passenger compartment and the whole engine had come down through the passenger compartment and smashed his head into the radio console and I thought he was dead, because he had an engine on his head. But when I went back in to start pulling the body out, it was clear that his -- I heard a noise, a slight movement, so he was alive.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Colin Powell Interview Photo
His helmet had been smashed, but it had protected him enough from fatal injury. So we got him out and he was walking around about two days later. That was memorable, you don't forget that too often. I broke my ankle and some other things, but they were minor.

Aside from that vivid experience, how was your second tour in Vietnam different from the first?

Colin Powell: When I went back some five years later, a lot had changed. I had served with South Vietnamese soldiers. But it was now an American war and we were bringing all of American technology to bear. And I was now a major, not a captain, a little more senior. I'd also seen some terrible things happen in my own country in that five-year period. The assassination of President Kennedy, the death of Martin Luther King, riots, church bombings during the civil rights revolution.

And 1968 was a terrible time in this country. A president who said he wasn't going to run again, and the war had turned sour. And when I got back and spent another year there we were applying American fire power and technology, but it wasn't clear that we had moved any further along in recapturing the initiative or persuading the North Vietnamese that this is not a course they should pursue.

Colin Powell Interview Photo
They were determined to pursue it to the end and they would spend whatever number of lives it took to win. And it was a war they'd been fighting for 40 years, they understood what they were about, and they were prepared to make the supreme sacrifice. We no longer clearly understood what we were about, and we were losing hundreds of young men a week, but it was not clear that we were in it to prevail, or we could prevail.

That was pretty much known by 1968/'69, and I came home in '69, but it took us several more years to create the circumstances that we could get out and turn it over to the South Vietnamese.

Colin Powell: And then I think in one of the sad chapters of American history, having promised the South Vietnamese that we would come to their assistance with more weapons and ammunition if they needed it, the United States Congress finally abandoned them. That went against our word. Whether they would have prevailed even if we hadn't abandoned them is, I think questionable. I think they would probably have lost anyway, but I wish they had not lost on the heels of an American abandonment. So it was a very dismal period. And when it was all over, I was still a professional soldier, now a lieutenant colonel. And we were in an army that had been seen as the loser in this war. We were shaken to our core. We had lost a generation of leaders. We'd had the scandal of My Lai. We had racial relations. The American people said, "We want out of the draft. We no longer want to have a draft." In fact, they were separating themselves from the army. "You just go out and recruit and that's what you get. But no more draft." So we ended the draft. There was an estrangement between the American people and its military. But I was a professional soldier, and so it was my job to work in that world and try to fix it, repair it. And one of the things I'm proudest of in my life is that over the next 15, 17 years, working with great leaders and finally with the new political leadership that came in with the Reagan Administration -- political leaders who told us to be proud of ourselves once again and gave us the resources to really finish the transition to a modern, powerful army -- we became a force that the nation once again was proud of. And we saw the result of that in Desert Storm.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

How do you come to grips with something like that? You are a professional soldier, it's always been a source of pride to serve in the American armed forces, and yet, yes, Vietnam was this watershed, this estrangement. How did you deal with that?

Colin Powell Interview Photo
Colin Powell: Well, we just dealt with it. We just said, "We will not allow ourselves to be broken. We will not allow ourselves to be abandoned by the people. We will demonstrate our worthiness. We will go back to our traditions. We will go back to our history, we'll gain inspiration from our past, and we will reshape ourselves for a new future."

We got rid of some of the touchy-feely things that we were experimenting with and we went back to discipline, structure. You are serving the nation, even though sometimes the nation doesn't appreciate it, that's all right. They will when the next conflict comes along. We just went back to basics: structure, discipline, patriotism, pride. Developed the best equipment in the world. Showed our troops that if they go into battle they'll be taken care of and their leaders won't abandon them.

A whole generation of senior officers came up, including me, General Schwarzkopf and many others, who having gone through Vietnam were committed to the proposition that if we ever have to face something like that again, as the senior officers it is our responsibility to work with our political leaders and if necessary push our political leaders to make sure that they understand what they're getting into, and have they made the right political decisions? And they're the ones to determine, you know, what the right political decisions are.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

But we felt it was our responsibility to lay out the consequences of the use of military force. And I think all that came together in the Bush Administration -- the Reagan and Bush Administrations -- but especially in the Bush Administration.

When we faced conflicts in Panama and in Desert Storm and in the Gulf War, where President Bush and his political leaders working with him, Secretary Baker -- Jim Baker -- and Secretary Dick Cheney, came up with clear political guidance and then supervised us very carefully. It wasn't just, "Okay, here's the guidance, you military folks just tell us what you need and you get it." We had to explain to our political leaders and justify to our political leaders what we needed and why we were going to do things the way we recommended to them. And they challenged us, made sure that they were satisfied that we had thought it all through and then they let us do the job. They turned us loose. That was quite a renaissance.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

It really began after Panama. In Panama they saw a professional army at work again. It was a short conflict. We restored a democratically elected president and got rid of a tyrant. People saw that said, "Look at that. That's pretty good." A year-and-a-half later we did Desert Storm and they saw it again and there was a great outpouring of support. People were surprised, frankly.

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