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Black military members on Colin Powell's influence and importance

"I always thought of Powell as an inspiration for African American military leaders like myself," a retired Army colonel said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell and members of the 132nd MP Company in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 22, 1990.
Gen. Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  and members of the 132nd Military Police Company in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 22, 1990.Jonathan Bainbridge / Reuters file

When he was an Army cadet in the mid-1980s, Jeffrey Freeland met Colin Powell during a visit to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Freeland was unaware of Powell at the time, but the soldier who would become the most decorated Black man in United States military history — ascending to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state — would impact Freeland’s career.

“I met him again years later when I was a second lieutenant, and he was great,” Freeland, who retired in 2006 as a colonel, said. “The best thing he did for all officers, but particularly for minority officers, is he was a mentor. He would call you back, email you back and sit down with you and talk to you about what you needed to do to become successful.” 

Powell died Monday at 84 due to complications from Covid-19. His family said he had been fully vaccinated, but he also had multiple myeloma, a cancer of a type of white blood cell.

"He told me, 'Jeff, have a thought process,'" Freeland recalled. "'And in your process make sure you incorporate your personal experiences, documents and procedures, and make sure it includes history, to assure that you get a big picture and not address an issue from one lens.' I carried that with me throughout my career — and passed down that wisdom to others."

Freeland’s admiration for Powell illustrates the thoughts and memories of many retired and active Black service members. Powell, a retired four-star general and the first Black secretary of state, twice earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Freeland and other Black service members said Powell broke barriers within the military for people of color.

"A cousin texted me with the news of his death, and I was devastated," said Ronnie Bagley, a retired Army colonel. "I always thought of Powell as an inspiration for African American military leaders like myself. And beyond that, he was an inspiration for civil servants, as well.

"I admired him because he worked for predominately Republican administrations, but he maintained his stance on domestic issues as it relates to social injustice, poverty, etc. That said a lot about the man. So it’s a significant loss because I felt he still had a lot to offer with his philosophy about life and social justice — and foreign affairs matters."

Powell broke ranks with Republicans and endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012. When Obama learned of Powell’s support in 2012, he said on the campaign trail in Richmond, Virginia: “I’m proud and humbled to learn that we have Colin Powell’s support in this campaign. I’m grateful to him for his lifetime of service to his country both as a soldier and as a diplomat.” 

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