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General (R) Colin L. Powell Receives Thayer Award

Categories: Thayer Award, Events & Awards

As a distinguished soldier-statesman, adviser to three presidents, and nationally respected public servant, Colin Luther Powell has rendered outstanding service to the nation, the United States Army, and his fellow countrymen. In successive positions of increasing responsibility in the national interest, General Powell has exemplified unparalleled devotion to the principles expressed in the motto of the United States Military Academy: “Duty, Honor, Country.”

General Powell’s remarkable career began in 1958 as a 2d Lieutenant of Infantry. As a junior officer, he served two tours in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded and cited for valor. In Korea, he assumed command of an infantry battalion of sagging morale and transformed it into a highly trained, combat-ready unit, rated among the best in the division.

As he advanced in rank, his assignments increasingly involved service at the highest levels of government. In 1972, he was designated a White House Fellow, serving in the Office of Management and Budget. In a subsequent Executive Branch assignment, he served as the Senior Military Assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

In 1979, he was chosen to command the 2d Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Promoted to Brigadier General in 1981, he became the Assistant Division Commander, 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized). In 1986, he was promoted to Lieutenant General and selected to command the Fifth United States Army Corps in Germany. Six months later, at President Reagan’s personal request, he relinquished his command to join the National Security Council Staff and led its reorganization in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra episode. Later that year, he was appointed Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. In early 1989, General Powell was promoted to General and assumed command of the United States Army Forces Command.

In August 1989, President Bush selected General Powell to become the twelfth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the youngest man and first African-American to hold our nation’s highest military position.

As Chairman, he implemented a national military policy characterized by clarity of mission and the application, when required, of overwhelming combat force. His direction of Operation Just Cause, which ousted the Panamanian dictator, Noriega, was brilliant. His orchestration of Operation Desert Shield, the largest strategic deployment of United States military forces in decades, was masterful. His role as the senior military leader responsible to the President for oversight of Operation Desert Storm, was pivotal to the allied victory.

In 1993, General Powell retired from active military service. Retirement, however, brought no respite from the call of duty. In 1994, President Clinton asked him to join former President Jimmy Carter and Senator Sam Nunn in a presidential mission to Haiti, to persuade its military dictator Cedras, to step down. The mission succeeded, allowing Haiti’s elected leader, President Aristide, to return to power.

Again in 1997, General Powell answered the President’s call, this time to serve as General Chairman of the President’s Summit for America’s Future. Following the Summit, General Powell agreed to chair “America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth,” the ongoing national campaign dedicated to improving the lives of the nation’s more than fifteen million at-risk youth.

General Powell’s numerous US military, civil and foreign awards and decorations certify his lifetime of accomplishment. He is the recipient of NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Award. The AUSA honored him with its premier accolade, the George Catlett Marshall Medal. On two occasions, the President presented him the nation’s highest civilian decoration, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In his autobiography, General Powell writes: “My responsibility, our responsibility as lucky Americans, is to try to give back to this country, as much as it has given to us.” General Powell has given back the fullest measure of selfless service. His uncommon devotion to duty epitomizes the finest qualities of the American soldier and clearly reflects the values expressed in the West Point motto. Accordingly, the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy hereby awards the 1998 West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award to Colin Luther Powell.


Remarks by General Colin Powell

Upon Receiving the Sylvanus Thayer Award
West Point September 15, 1998

Thank you very much.

Thank you so very much, my fellow soldiers and friends, for the kind welcome. It’s a great honor to be with you this evening. Secretary Caldera, Mrs. Caldera, distinguished guests, one and all, and especially the classes of the United States Military Academy, good evening once again.

General Christman, I thank you for the welcome back to West Point and for your generous comments. Mr. Hammack, I thank you and extend my deep appreciation to you and to the Association of Graduates for my selection as the 1998 recipient of the Thayer Award. And my special thanks also to the selection committee headed by General Carl Vuono, one of my dearest friends in life and in the Army, who as my boss guided my career for so many, many years. Meddled in it quite a bit I should also say! All to the good.

This is a wonderful evening for me, and I will never forget it. Nor will I forget the honor of receiving this award. It’s a humbling experience to join the ranks of the 40 distinguished Americans who have preceded me to this stage. So I am pleased especially to have with me someone dear to me to share this honor. Someone who, in my view, is far more deserving than I. Someone without whom there would be no me, someone who for 36 years has been my wife – and a very great Army wife – Alma Powell.

I must say, however, that the most moving event of the day was the review out on the Plain. I thank the members of the Corps of Cadets for looking so marvelous. I have never had the privilege of reviewing the Corps before, and it was a rare tribute indeed. And, as I stood there, I couldn’t help but think of all who have marched in the years before you on that field: the MacArthurs, the Eisenhowers, the Pattons, the Bradleys, but more importantly, the lesser knowns – the Smiths and Jones and Browns and Johnsons and Garcias and Kims and others of the long gray line who marched past into the pages of American history.

Standing there and looking around and admiring the beauty of this place, looking at the wonderful young men marching past, brought back to me fond memories of my previous visits to West Point. My first visit to West Point was forty years ago, in 1958, the year I was commissioned and the first year of the Thayer Award. I was the Cadet Colonel of my ROTC detachment at the City College of New York – down the river a bit and one of the largest ROTC detachments in the country. Interestingly, the first president of the City College of New York was a West Point graduate by the name of Horris Webster, class of 1818, in the early days of the Sylvanus Thayer regime.

I was a pretty good cadet, and ROTC had opened my eyes to the possibility of a career as a soldier. President Truman had desegregated the Armed Forces ten years earlier, and the Army had completed its desegregation of all units just four years earlier, in 1954. I was so proud to be on the verge of entering the only institution in American society at that time that was totally integrated, in which I would have the opportunity to rise based solely on performance and ability.

My professor of Military Science and Tactics at the City College of New York, and a man who was my mentor, was Colonel Harold C. Brookhart, Class of 1934, West Point. A few weeks before graduation and commissioning, Colonel Brookhart sent me up to West Point to spend a few days here. His son, Dan Brookhart, was being commissioned in the class of 1958; and Colonel Brookhart wanted me to get to know Dan. He also wanted me to meet some of the other officers I would be serving within the course of my career whom I might be competing with. But he had a more profound purpose in mind. He wanted me to visit, if only for a few days, the wellspring of my chosen profession – the place where the professional standards are set, the place that defines the military culture, the place that nurtures the values and virtues of Army service and passes them on from generation to generation. Colonel Brookhart wanted to make sure that as his mentee, as his kind of pride and joy at CCNY, I would at least be touched by the spirit of West Point as I went out into the world to begin my Army career. I met fellow cadets here who would become lifelong friends. I left a few days later with a better sense of what West Point and what my new profession of arms was all about.

I returned about ten years later; I was now a young major with a wife and two children. I was on my way back to Vietnam for the second time. We were here to visit one of our good classmates from the Class of ’58, Joe Schwar and his wife Pat. We had met as brand new lieutenants and served together in our first assignment in the 48th Infantry in Germany. Just to show you how the cycles of life interact, that 48th Infantry in Germany was commanded by Colonel James Bartholomees. He was my first battalion commander who gave me my first company and gave Joe Schwar his first company. He was buried just this morning here at his beloved West Point – Class of ’42.

Joe and Pat and Alma and I had become close friends as part of this fraternity of being in the military. Whether you are from ROTC or West Point or anywhere else, you are now part of a great profession whose members have always shared and cared and loved with each other. We were so close to the Schwars because a few years earlier, when we were assigned to Fort Bragg and couldn’t find a place to live for the six weeks we would be in school there because of segregation in the South at that point, the Schwars befriended us and took us into their home to live with them and their three children. On the day of our visit here in 1968, with the Schwars—Joe and I on the way back to Vietnam—they were filming “Hello Dolly” on the post…the great movie with Barbra Streisand. Our two families spent an idyllic summer afternoon watching Hollywood at work before heading off to war.

I noticed that another decade passed before my next visit. It was 1979, and I returned as a brand new brigadier general. And I was accompanying Deputy Secretary of Defense Charles Duncan who was the graduation speaker to the Class of 1979. I had just been promoted the day before, and I was kind of an awkward Brigadier General. As I got off the helicopter in front of the Supe’s house, one of my stars had fallen off. There I was at West Point, missing a star on my first day as a brigadier general. So while the Deputy Secretary headed to the Supe’s house and over to where the graduation ceremony would be held in the stadium, I made a raid on the Commandant’s house figuring I could “snitch” a star there.

But I was delayed—and I had the Deputy Secretary’s speech. And so time passed, and I finally got to the stadium, was escorted up to where I was supposed to be, and discovered that I was on the wrong side of the stadium—behind the Corps of Cadets with the Superintendent’s wife. And I looked across the field at the graduating class and all the cadets, and in the distance I could see Mr. Duncan shifting nervously in his seat. It was then I demonstrated why the Army had seen fit to promote me to Brigadier General: I grabbed the first Major going by, and I said “Major, you’ve got two minutes—there he is—you’d better hurry”. My first day as a brigadier general was not a complete disaster.

And then another decade went by. When I showed up again, I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Armed Forces of the United States, to be the graduation speaker for the Class of 1990. I carried my own speech. Even generals can ultimately learn something. The Panamanian invasion was just behind us; we were a few months short of Desert Storm. It was an interesting time in American history; the Berlin wall had fallen a few months earlier. I shared the spotlight that day with Kristin Baker, the first female first captain, now Captain Kristin Baker, Military Intelligence.

So it seems like every decade of my service in the Army has drawn me back to West Point for one purpose or another. And as I stood out on the field today and thought about all of these pleasant memories – these nostalgic memories – I couldn’t help but also think about the world that existed at each of these decade points. What it was like in 1958, when I headed out as a brand new second lieutenant into a Cold War period of containment when the whole world was divided into the red side of the map and the blue side of the map; where our strategy was massive retaliation to contain the Soviet empire. We were a proud Army but we were an under-resourced Army. We were not a very ready Army. But I was proud to be a part of that Army and to do my part in the Cold War.

And then, ten years later, Vietnam. The country was coming apart; we were being ripped apart. The war was ripping us apart, ripping the Army apart. We had seen some terrible things in our society: the death of President Kennedy a few years earlier; the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in that terrible year l968; to be followed by the end of that disastrous war, the resignation of the President and the Vice President. The whole nation was shaken, our institution of the Army was shaken, and the American people almost turned their backs on us as they ended the draft.

But, we came through that period—about 1973 and 4—and then we got to work rebuilding the Army. One of the proudest aspects of my career, and I know it’s also the case with General Vuono and so many others in the room this evening—so many old friends that are here—is that we stayed during those dark days; we stayed in times of difficulty in order to rebuild that great Army. The great Army that I was privileged to be Chairman of in 1990 after watching—in that 1979 third decade period—how it had become a hollow Army.

But by 1990 it was the best Army we had fielded in decades. We saw what we could do in the Panamanian invasion. In Desert Storm, we not only demonstrated that we were truly number one in the world, the Armed Forces electrified the country. The people fell in love with us again. There was a bonding between the citizens of America and her fighting men and women of a kind we hadn’t seen since the end of World War II. And as the 1990’s unfolded, we found that we were at the height of our power and prominence in the world. We saw the end of the Cold War; we lost our best enemy, the Soviet Union. Democracy and capitalism had triumphed. And we then went into a period of reduction, bringing our forces down in a planned way so that we didn’t tear them apart the way we had after every previous conflict of this century. We produced the Army that’s out there now, that’s every bit as good as the one that we had at the time of Desert Storm.

But we know there are problems. Just a few hours before we assembled here this evening, earlier members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Commanders in Chief of the Armed Forces, met with President Clinton and Secretary Cohen to discuss some of these problems. We are in danger of losing that edge if we don’t do something about it. There is a small cancer that has broken out in the Armed Forces. Cancer that’s affecting readiness and modernization. It’s a cancer that we must treat and deal with now before it’s allowed to metastasize and we go back to the hollow armies of the past.

But, as I speak to you tonight, these conflicts are behind us. We are looking forward to a future that does not have the clarity of the Cold War; it’s very unclear. It’s as if we’re looking through a glass dimly. Will there be a resurgent Russia? I don’t think so. Will there be an emergent China that becomes a threat? I don’t think so. Will North Korea, Iraq and Iran show that history has not ended? By all means they will, and they must be contained, defended and fought if necessary. Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction compete for our attention and our priority. Peace-making and peacekeeping responsibilities assume greater importance as missions. We see the uncertainty of a New World global economy. There is no longer the clarity of the past—the only clarity is uncertainty.

This is not the tidy world we hoped for. But even with all that uncertainty, I believe there is every reason for hope, for optimism. Democracy and capitalism, what we stood for all those years, work with all of their faults and all of their disruptions. They work, and there are no other competing ideologies on the face of the earth. Whatever dangers still face us, few rise to the level of the past. Our survival as a nation and as a people is no longer threatened as it once was. America remains the preeminent nation on the face of the earth. We have economic power, political influence and military superiority. And the power we have is power that is trusted; we are the trusted leader of the world that wants to be free. The world remembers well that several times in the course of this century, the United States was at the height of the world, the height of power. After World War I, or World War II, or even at the end of the Cold War, we could have imposed our will on the world but we didn’t. All we ever asked for was the opportunity to raise up our former enemies, and to get back to the business of peace and democracy. The only other thing we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. We never wanted anyone else’s land or sovereignty over anyone. No other nation on the face of the earth possesses that kind power, possess that kind of power today in such abundance.

There are so many elements that come together that give us this power: our vibrant economy, our noisy but functioning political system, our democratic tradition, our religious foundation. So many tangible and intangible pieces form the mosaic of American power. Our military power, of course, is one of the most important elements of power. Our Armed Forces are number one and must remain so. They are our insurance policy for a hopeful future. And as we have seen repeatedly over our history, the premium on that insurance policy and the ultimate foundation of our security rests—rests on the men and women who are willing to defend the nation. The men and women who are willing to fight for the nation—to fight the nation’s wars. Who are willing to go into harm’s way, who are willing to give their lives for the country and for their fellow soldiers. They are the nation’s warriors. They have come forward from city and farm whenever they have been needed for over 200 years. No group of Americans has a greater claim to the love, appreciation and respect of fellow citizens than the warriors of the nation. They are sons and daughters and brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. They are not mercenaries. And they fight the nation’s wars for us, not as strangers but as our very own. They are the pride of America—the best the nation has to offer. They are the Private Ryans of America.

And to you, to you the men and women of West Point, is given the honor and responsibility of leading them at battle. For almost 200 years West Point has provided the warrior leaders of the nation. There is no other reason for West Point to exist. You have no other purpose in being here. That hasn’t changed in my 40 years; it hasn’t changed in West Point’s two centuries; and it will not change in the third century of West Point which will begin with next year’s class. I know that in this room there are future corporate leaders and political leaders and doctors and scientists and perhaps a president or two. And also present tonight are those who will rise to the top of the military to lead America’s Armed Forces several decades from now. But your journey to that distant destination begins with a commitment that each and every one of you has made to prepare yourselves to be a superb leader of America’s soldiers. The soldiers who are out there waiting for you will have high expectations of you. They expect you to lead them to win, whether in battle or peacekeeping. To accomplish the mission given by the nation. They will look to you for inspiration, for a sense of purpose. They want to follow you, not be your buddy or your equal. You are their leader. They want someone in charge that they can trust—trust with their lives. They want someone they respect, someone they can be proud of. The want to be able to brag about their lieutenant.

And you give that to them by demonstrating your competence, by showing your willingness to work hard to accomplish the mission and to take care of them. By setting the highest standards which you meet and which you help them to meet. By your courage, by your physical courage in battle, and training for battle. By your moral courage, by living a life of the highest ethical standards, unmoved by whatever may happen elsewhere in the society that seems to suggest lower standards are acceptable. The nation always looks to West Point and always looks to each and every one of you to follow always the better angels of your nature. Those troops will expect your total loyalty and your selflessness—your total honesty. They’ll expect you to solve their problems, and they’ll bring you problems you could never have imagined. They bring them to you because they trust you and think you can solve them. The day they are not bringing you those problems is the day that you are no longer leading them. Their expectations can be summarized simply as “lead me, lead me.”

Do these things; practice these skills now here at West Point. Be ready for those American warriors who are waiting for you. Do these things, form that bond of trust between you and your troops—that bond of respect—and they will take care of you and they will follow you into the darkest night, the coldest dawn, the deepest abyss no matter how terrifying the face of death.

West Point is the crucible that prepares you for this challenge. West Point, driven by a simple code known throughout the land: Duty, Honor, Country.

Duty – – the mission, the troops, selfless professional service, a career of service, a lifetime of service. Honor – – your word is your bond. Truth, honesty and character are your watchwords never to be forgotten. Country – – your oath to the country rests on our constitution which rests on the will of the American people. Our Army is truly a people’s Army. This simple code is not something West Point gives to you. It is something that West Point helps you give to yourselves. For all its beauty and history, West Point is a pile of stone until you bring it to life every day. You can inscribe Duty, Honor, Country on every granite block and it would mean nothing unless those words are engraved in your heart. You bring the code alive every day by the dozens of decisions you make every day. To live by that code you are inspired by these surroundings, the memories of the long gray line. Members of the long gray line as well who have gone before you to show the way. And now it is your turn to nourish the legend of West Point by your actions, and by your commitment to a lifetime of service to the nation. So be proud of the choice you have made to serve your fellow citizens. In this time of cynicism, be proud to uphold this ultimate responsibility of citizenship. Prepare yourselves well to be the warrior leaders of the nation. Remember to take care of those who’ll be entrusted to your care and they will take care of you. Always live by the code inscribed in your heart.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this award which allows me in a very small way to become a part of West Point and a part of your tradition. Good Luck. God Bless you. And thank you for letting me visit once more.

Thank you.


Colin Luther Powell was born in New York City on April 5, 1937 and was raised in the South Bronx. His parents, Luther and Maud Powell, immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. General Powell was educated in the New York City Public Schools, graduating from Morris High School and the City College of New York (CCNY), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in geology. He also participated in ROTC at CCNY and received a commission as an Army second lieutenant upon graduation in June 1958. His further academic achievements include a Master of Business Administration Degree from George Washington University.

After completing the Infantry Officer Basic Course, Ranger Course, and Airborne Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, General Powell was stationed as a lieutenant in Germany. Subsequent operational assignments took him to Fort Devens, Massachusetts; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and Fort Carson, Colorado. General Powell served two tours in Vietnam, from 1962 to 1963 and 1968 to 1969. He was also a battalion commander in Korea from 1973 to 1974. He later commanded the 2d Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and the US Army’s V Corps in Germany. Prior to being named Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he served as the Commanding General, United States Army Forces Command headquartered at Fort McPherson, Georgia.

In addition to his selection as a White House Fellow in 1972, General Powell’s assignments in Washington, DC included duty as Senior Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and as Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He served as Executive Assistant to the Secretary of Energy for a brief period. In December 1987, President Ronald Reagan named General Powell as the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, a post in which he served until January 1989.

General Powell served as the twelfth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense, from October 1, 1989 to September 30, 1993, under both President George Bush and President Bill Clinton. In this capacity, he served as the principal military advisor to the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council.

General Powell has been the recipient of numerous US military awards and decorations, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters), the Army Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster), Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (with Oak Leaf Cluster), Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star Medal, and the Purple Heart. He has also been decorated by the governments of Argentina, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela.

Among General Powell’s citations for distinguished public service are two awards of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the President’s Citizens Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Secretary of State Distinguished Service Medal, and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal. Additionally, he received an honorary knighthood (Knight of the Bath) from the Queen of England in December of 1993.

After retiring from the US Army on September 30, 1993, General Powell spent the next two years writing his autobiography, titled My American Journey, which was published in September 1995. Currently, he is lecturing to diverse audiences in the United States and abroad, while serving on the boards of several non-profit organizations. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Howard University and a member of the Board of Directors of the United Negro College Fund. The General also serves on the Board of Governors of The Boys and Girls Clubs of America and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Children’s Health Fund. In January of 1997, President Clinton named him to be the General Chairman of The President’s Summit for America’s Future, held in Philadelphia on April 27-29, 1997. Following the Summit, General Powell agreed to chair “America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth,” the ongoing national campaign dedicated to improving the lives of the nation’s more than fifteen million at-risk youth.

General Powell is married to the former Alma Vivian Johnson of Birmingham, Alabama. They have a son, Michael, and two daughters, Linda and Annemarie.

Thayer Award

Since 1958, the West Point Association of Graduates has presented the SYLVANUS THAYER AWARD to an outstanding citizen of the United States whose service and accomplishments in the national interest exemplify personal devotion to the ideals expressed in the West Point motto, “DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY.”
The Sylvanus Thayer Award is funded by a generous endowment from E. Doug Kenna ’45 and his wife, Jean.

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