Colin Powell and me

Thursday, October 4, 2012

In June and July 1989, I was an Army ROTC cadet, struggling at Fort Lewis, Wash., to complete six weeks of Advanced Camp training. This was the capstone experience at the time before commissioning as a second lieutenant. In almost every category -- physical fitness, weapons qualification and inspections -- I was at or below average in my training platoon.

My instructors and drill sergeants were, as they should have been, demanding and unforgiving, prodding me to rise above my mediocrity and emerge prepared to lead soldiers.

Most of that experience remains a blur of marching, field training exercises, cleaning weapons, making and remaking my bed, and racing to finish eating in the mess hall before a sergeant yelled "You're done, get out!"

In the midst of that difficult summer, I remember a visit unlike any other.

One morning, we marched to a parade field to stand in formation to hear a speech by a general. This was not the first time we would be summoned to listen to a senior officer.

To this 20-year-old, it seemed as if every general or colonel in the Army was channeling a caricature of George Patton, barking out boilerplate slogans while we pretended to be motivated by the exhortations.

Invariably, we would later complain about having to stand in the sun while listening to a one or two-star drone on from his script, towering above us from a podium -- invariably in the shade. So my expectations were quite low.

This speech, however, was different.

As we arrived at the parade field, we were not marched in review in front of a reviewing stand. For a change, there was no raised podium. Instead, we stood in the middle of a field.

From one side we saw an officer walk toward us. As he came closer, I notice the glint on his cap -- four stars shining.

Gen. Colin Powell, newly promoted as commander of FORSCOM (U.S. Army Forces Command) began to speak.

I had never heard of him, despite his previous service as Reagan's last national security adviser. Immediately, it became apparent that this was no martinet shouting at us about sacrifices he was no longer making, or trying to convince the weakest among us -- which at that time included me -- to give up and go home.

Instead, General Powell spoke to us as fellow soldiers. I honestly remember not a word of what he said -- no slogan or five-point plan stuck in my mind. What I do vividly retain is the image of a real officer and statesman who looked at us not as expendable cadets, but as future officers who he might see one day in his formations.

He treated us with respect, even standing on our level and in that same bright sunshine, bringing to us a message that spoke more loudly than any wordy speech could have. Then, he was gone, headed toward his Black Hawk helicopter and a greater destiny.

I somehow survived the summer of 1989, and have since risen to my current rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, exceeding the meager competencies of my cadet years.

While it would be too much to say I owe my career to General Powell, in that moment he provided me with a lasting sense of honor, respect and serenity -- no small things to a young man, barely out of his teenage years.

The character of this man, evident to me more than 20 years ago, was displayed again this week, when he spoke at Southeast Missouri State University.

I was fortunate enough to shake his hand and, although I did not have time to remind him of our encounter in 1989, it allowed me the chance to reflect again on what makes a real leader.

This nation has been fortunate to have Colin Powell's service, as a decorated soldier, leader at the highest levels of the U.S. Army and Department of Defense, as well as the State Department.

This time, I will remember his speech. Even so, I believe I drew the greater lessons, among the most significant in my military career, from my first encounter with the general.

Dr. Wayne Bowen received his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University, and is also an Army veteran.

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