Colin Powell

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"The Army has officially advised me that for record purposes I have served 35 years, three months and 21 days," said General Colin L Powell when he retired from the military in 1993. "I loved every single day of it; and it's hard to leave."

Less than a decade on, the son of Jamaican immigrants who served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, is back in the hot seat. This time his role is that of Secretary of State the principal foreign policy adviser to the president in George W Bush's cabinet.

Colin Luther Powell was born in New York City on April 5, 1937, the son of a shipping clerk and a seamstress. Brought up in the South Bronx, he graduated from Morris High School in 1954 and went on to gain a BA in Geology from the City University of New York, working in a toy shop on the side. At college it became evident his future lay with the military. He excelled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps and the top rank of cadet colonel he attained won him a commission as second lieutenant in the US Army.

After his first posting in West Germany, Colin saw active combat in Vietnam, and was wounded in 1963 by a Vietcong booby trap. During his second tour at the tail end of the Sixties, he was wounded again when the helicopter he was travelling in crashed. The injuries he sustained and his valour were recognised with numerous medals including a Purple Heart and a Soldier's Medal.

Going on to study for an MBA at prestigious George Washington University in the American capital, he got his first taste of politics through a White House fellowship. During Ronald Reagan's White House tenure, he was special military assistant to Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and oversaw military actions in Grenada and Libya. Yet, despite his military background, Colin believes true power lies in restraint. A true coalition-builder, he once said: "You can't be unilateralist; the world is too complicated".

Colin also served under George Bush Senior, who appointed him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the youngest man and the first black to hold the post. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Colin initially opposed the use of force, proposing the use of economic sanctions instead. Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney (now US vice-president), had to order him to draw up military plans. When Operation Desert Storm took place, Colin Powell became a household name.

His retirement from the army two years later presented the career soldier with a dilemma. He was urged to run for president, but his best friend advised against it, as did his wife Alma who feared that, as the first black president, he would be assassinated. Instead he concentrated on writing his memoirs, My American Journey, which topped the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 1995 and helped boost his personal fortune to $28 million.

When George W Bush eventually won the race to the White House at the end of 2000, he gave the African-American who had proved such a star during his father's administration a call. But the first months of the 43rd president's administration were dark days for Colin. His position as a lone centrist in Bush's ultra-conservative government had Time magazine wondering where Powell had got to.

The tragedy of the terrorist attacks against the US in September 2001 brought him back into the limelight. With Bush's other military advisers seeking immediate retribution, Colin again advised caution.

Colin and Alma were married in 1962 and have three children: Michael, Linda and Anne, plus two grandchildren. He is known for his razor-sharp wit, and has a penchant for bursting into song at official occasions he apparently stunned guests when he belted out a version of The Banana Boat Song at an official Navy dinner, and he once sang El Paso with Japan's foreign minister Makiko Tanaka during a foreign ministers' summit in Vietnam.

As a peace-loving military man and a black figure in the Establishment Colin Powell is a complex American icon. A colleague summed up the man often described as "the smartest of the chiefs" when he described him as a: "strong man with a gentle disposition who has exhibited the qualities of trust and good sense that were sorely needed at the National Security Council."
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