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Black veterans on what Colin Powell meant to them

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Colin Powell's funeral took place today at National Cathedral. Powell was a force in U.S. politics for decades, serving as secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs during his career. For Black Americans, in particular Black veterans, he was a pioneer. NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke with several Black vets who shared their recollections of Powell and his legacy.

TIMOTHY BERRY: My name is Timothy Berry (ph). My connection to Colin Powell was through my grandma. My grandma used to always talk about Colin Powell, and she was pretty convinced that I was going to be him after I graduated from West Point. And after his death, it finally just kind of gave me some time to kind of, like, reflect about my own time of service, what it means to be an American, what it means to be, like, a Black American.

MICHAEL MCCOY: My name is Michael McCoy (ph). I'm a freelance photojournalist based out of Washington, D.C. I'm also a two-time Iraq War veteran. I spent the bulk of my time in the infantry. And at that time, I never knew that Black majors, Black lieutenant colonels, Black colonels and generals existed outside of Colin Powell. You know, before Colin Powell, the only four-star Black general was Roscoe Robinson Jr. But, you know, since Colin Powell's appointment, you know, it's opened the door for other army generals such as, you know, Johnnie E. Wilson, Larry Ellis and Brigadier General Clara Adams-Ender.

CLARA ADAMS-ENDER: OK. I'm Clara Adams-Ender. I served for 34 grand and glorious years in the United States Army. I first met Mr. Colin Powell when I was promoted to brigadier general, as a matter of fact. He often told a story to us about being a young lieutenant. And he got his officer efficiency report. And officer wrote on his efficiency report, he is the best Black lieutenant in my unit. And he said he remembered thinking for himself that that was not good enough for him. He didn't want to be the best Black lieutenant in the unit. He wanted to be the best lieutenant.

DANA PITTARD: I first met General Powell when I was a young captain in Germany. My name is Dana Pittard. I'm a major general, retired, United States Army. I saw him, again, a number of times. One was the dedication of the Buffalo Soldier Monument in 1992. The Buffalo Soldiers was - that was two Black cavalry units in the Old West. Colin Powell was a brigadier general. That's a one-star. He was assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. This was in the 1980s. While jogging around Fort Leavenworth, he realized that there was no mention, no monument, no nothing recognizing the distinguished service of the Buffalo soldiers. So he was determined to do something about that. And he finally did as a chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and really sponsoring it. Now, what's consistent is he's a leader that people trust. And even with the speech at the U.N. - and this was a speech - I believe it was in February of 2003 as a precursor to getting the U.N. support of the invasion of Iraq. But Colin Powell, following or learning that the intelligence - when the intelligence was flawed, owned up to it and said he made a mistake.

MELISSA BRYANT: I think that is the greatest lesson that we are all left with in his memory is to be accountable. My name is Melissa Bryant, U.S. Army veteran, currently deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, Department of Veterans Affairs. I think it's an important lesson for all leaders to admit when there's a mistake. You know, it was especially important for me as a young leader coming up, reading "My American Journey" as an ROTC cadet and then later following his career as I was starting my own army officer career, and knowing that we're not infallible and that we will make mistakes sometimes on the world stage and that you can own up to that.

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BERRY: Hey. This is Timothy Berry again. I think for me, I think the beautiful thing about Colin Powell is that he really is just kind of like the personification of America - just a lot of complications and optimism and caution and all those things, like, wrapped into one.

MCCOY: This is Michael McCoy again. I believe, you know, General Powell opened the door. I mean, it's up to America to keep that door open.

CORNISH: Veterans Michael McCoy, Timothy Berry, Melissa Bryant, Dana Pittard and Clara Adams-Ender remembering the late Colin Powell. Next week, Timothy Berry and Michael McCoy will have an essay and photos on npr.org just in time for Veterans Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.