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Sharing military, political service, Siena College's Chris Gibson remembers late Colin Powell

Colin Powell and Chris Gibson in October 1992 at Fort Bragg, when Gibson served as infantry company commander for the 82nd Airborne Division. Also pictured is General Hugh Shelton, Commander of the 82nd Airborne.
Chris Gibson/Siena College
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Colin Powell and Chris Gibson in October 1992 at Fort Bragg, when Gibson served as infantry company commander for the 82nd Airborne Division. Also pictured is General Hugh Shelton, Commander of the 82nd Airborne.

Former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state Colin Powell is being remembered as a statesman by former presidents and leaders from both parties today. He died from complications of COVID-19 at age 84. He was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State. His legacy also includes making the case for war against Iraq before the U.N. Security Council in 2003 on faulty information.

One person who knew Powell personally is Siena College President Chris Gibson, who rose to the rank of Colonel during three decades in the Army and served four combat tours in Iraq. Gibson is also a former member of Congress.

What was your relationship with Gen. Powell?

I think we've lost the great American hero. He was a role model to so many, myself included. That photo that you're talking about, the former Yugoslavia was eventually going to fall apart, but it was really inclining towards chaos. And so we were the ready force for the 82nd Airborne Division in the country. And so General Powell wanted to get a firsthand look at how readiness was and so he came to Fort Bragg and my unit, I was commanding the Bravo Company of the Third Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry. And we were on heightened alert status for this. And he wanted to get a sense of our readiness. And so you can see from that photo, truly, I think, in so many ways indicative of the kind of guy he was when he was with you, he was so present. I mean, he's listening carefully to what I'm explaining. He's watching, he's talking with my paratroopers. He was very engaged. I already had him in very high regard before. That was the first time I had met him. I was with him on several occasions in the years subsequent to that, but you know, I just came away very impressed at his leadership from that day.

Having spent three decades in the military as you did, when it came to his role as a military leader, you're talking about, you know, kind of personal relationships and showing up and the importance of that what made him an outsize figure on the military side?

He, I think, in many ways, is the living personification of the American dream, you know, coming from a hardscrabble background, committing himself to hard work, dedication. He rose in the military all the way to the highest, he was the highest ranking officer in the entire country. And I think the way that he worked, he was he was very solid. His temperament was always stellar. I mean, even in the most stressful situations, he just would not get overexcited. He was certainly leaning in and focused. But as you can see in that photo, I mean, he just, he really knew what was important.

He could validate your hard work, he could press you with questions. And you know, because of that, you take a look at his time in command. And when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, which is although not command, is top military adviser to the President. That was the time of the military operation in Panama, also Desert Shield, Desert Storm and so it's a very steady leadership, he studied situations very carefully. He's very circumspect on the use of force. He was criticized by some including Secretary of State Albright for that, but he always wanted military force to be the last resort. He really believed in diplomacy and in positioning America so that we did get peaceful outcomes. But if it came to it, he wanted to use overwhelming force. If deterrence or diplomacy was not successful, he wanted to make sure that the outcome came out for the United States in a way that would minimize the risk and exposure and casualties on American soldiers. And because of that, he was endeared by the soldiers, paratroopers. Certainly in my company.

In many of his positions, he was the first Black person to reach those heights all throughout his career. How much did people on the ground notice that sort of thing?

Well, look, frankly, I mean, there was always just a little bit of criticism and sort of backstory on that. But I have to tell you, it was very minimal when anybody met General Powell in person, you can see just how incredible how talented he was, and he was really one not to get dislocated by any kind of criticism. He just had a way of dealing with matters and you know, he had a really good sense of humor.

Shortly after that photo was taken, I was walking General Powell through. We were doing a live fire exercise. As I mentioned, it was it was a rather tense time and we had to make sure that we were utterly ready and so we were going through a tire house, that's essentially it's a facility that's constructed so infantry units can do essentially room to room clearance with full caliber, including high explosive grenades. So you know, we're going through and I've got my lead squad going through and then I'm the next is I'm talking him through, he's right behind me. And you know, it only rained probably like four hours earlier. And so as we worked our way around this tire house, the grenade gets put into this room, it goes off. And then mud gets thrown up from the other side of this protection of the sandbags, protections, and it comes and lands on him. And so the other generals who you see in the photo, at least one of them, they look at me like they wanted to rip my head off at that point, because General Powell got mud on him. So there's this like, half second, maybe a second, when we're waiting for his reaction. And all of a sudden, you know, he just says, This is awesome. I can't wait to get back to the Pentagon and show these guys that, you know, I'm out there in the field. And so all of a sudden, then, you know, the generals who are looking at you got that you've got General Powell muddy, all of a sudden they’re like, this is great! But it was that moment, it shows you just how humble he was. And understanding what infantry is all about. I mean, he came from the ranks. He spent two tours in Vietnam, was wounded twice in battle, he understood exactly what was going on for us grunts on the front line, we appreciated that.

Like you, he is a man who bridged military leadership and the political sphere. Are there things that you take away from his life in public service, sort of after the military, when he became Secretary of State and played an outsize role in GOP politics for many years?

Absolutely, yes. Here's a guy who was a founding principles conservative since he was conscious. And you know, really brought that that real strong belief in the American Dream every step of the way, and then beyond when he hung up his uniform.

When you read “My American Journey,” which is really his autobiography, you can see how stirred he was by the possibility of a resonating, flourishing life in particularly one that's based on founding principles. I mean, he really credited our country as challenging as it was at times, and he'd be the last one to say was perfect, of course it wasn't. But he really believed in the enterprise. And that's what really led him to defend it, and then ultimately, to take on service beyond uniform. So that's my direct answer to your question, but two frankly, as you know, I mean, I did disagree with him.

I mean, I was more than surprised by his testimony at the U.N. And then ultimately, the invasion of Iraq, which I think was a mistake. You know, I, again, I'm not a pacifist. I'm a realist, but I think we've been leading with our chin too much. And I really thought that General Powell would hold the line there, he was really the last one in the George W. Bush administration to get on board with the invasion. So you know, as he said himself, I mean, that's going to be a blot on his record. I mean, he said it himself. So I think he came to regret that. And it was unfortunate. My views here are very strong in support of his legacy and everything, you know, the way he lived his life, but there was that that major disagreement that I had with him.

Lastly, he had moved away from Republican politics in the last few years. You know, he's endorsed Democratic candidates for president in the last several cycles. What do you think that says about his role in the conservative movement and his beliefs today?

Well, I think his beliefs were always rock steady, he really eschewed extremists. He identified his founding principles conservative. He, eschewed both the extreme left wing philosophical views and also the reactionary extreme right wing views. And I think he was very concerned by that. And I think it really stems back to the very strong belief he had in peaceful evolutionary change that comes by way of constitution. It comes by way of working together, folks with deep and spiritedly held views that have to accommodate and work together. That's part of his temperament. I mean, when you read his autobiography, his rules for leadership, you see that’s the way he believed you walk through life. So he became increasingly concerned about rhetoric that was exclusionary, about actions outside the step of the Constitution. And so I think it's a commentary that all should listen to.

For more on Powell's life, WAMC also spoke Monday with Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen, an expert on politics and conservatism. Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

An interview with Henry Olsen

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