Opinion by Richard Sternberg: Gen. Colin Powell: An American Hero

Gen. Colin Powell: An American Hero

Gen. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Advisor died Monday, Oct. 18. He had served the United States for more than four decades. He was 84. He truly was an American hero. He died of complications of COVID-19. He had been fully vaccinated and was scheduled to be given a booster last week when he became acutely ill. He was susceptible to COVID even though vaccinated because he was immunosuppressed.

At one time Gen. Powell was the most admired person in the United States. Both political parties wanted to draft him to run for president. He had followed the best traditions of our military such that no one actually knew what his political positions and party identification was or if he even was enrolled in a party. He turned both parties down saying he felt that campaigning wasn’t for him.

Powell is an American success story. Born the son of immigrants, he took advantage of opportunities open to him to attend City College of New York where he joined ROTC and his leadership skills were first recognized. Upon graduation he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart for injuries sustained. He was multiply decorated including for valor. He was appointed National Security Advisor to president Ronald Reagan. After serving as NSA, he returned to active duty and was ultimately appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, jumping over many more senior officers to be placed in that position. He served both presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. After retiring from the Army, he was George W. Bush’s first Secretary of State.

My favorite Colin Powell story is a minor one and probably apocryphal. When meeting the Israeli Prime Minister in Jerusalem, the PM asked him what language they should use. Should they try to use English, which the PM spoke imperfectly, or should they just go with each of their native languages and use their translators. Powell responded perfectly with “Why don’t we speak Yiddish” in Yiddish. The PM’s jaw dropped.

While a teenager in the South Bronx he worked in a children’s furniture and toy store and learned the language from the owner and the customers. He would hear customers discussing merchandise and possible purchases to each other. They thought he couldn’t possibly understand him, but he did. He relayed what he heard to the owner of the store who then was able to close the sale.

So, what does this really have to do with COVID? Powell died even though he was fully vaccinated. I am concerned some people will capitalize on this by saying, “See, he was vaccinated and he still died. The vaccine doesn’t protect you and it probably can hurt you. I’m not getting it and you shouldn’t either.”

This is absolutely not the message one should take from this tragedy.

Powell was immunosuppressed both from having multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, and from the treatment for it. A better lesson is how did he get COVID in the first place. Somebody he came in contact with had to be actively infectious. It even could have been at the hospital where he was being treated for multiple myeloma.

If fewer people have the disease the risk to people who are immunosuppressed would be decreased. Just another reason why everybody should be immunized as a way of beating back this disease and allowing our society to get back to normal.


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