Colin Powell

colin powell rotc cadet
A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

Most people know Colin Powell as one of the TV generals during the Persian Gulf War. Or an ever-present military official in the highest circles of power. Or the Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who gave a speech at the United Nations that would bookend his legacy.

I knew that guy too. A soldier who loved the operational Army but kept finding himself back in the White House. Duty called, and he was good at it.

But what many people don’t know is how dedicated Colin Powell was to his alma mater, the City College of New York (CCNY) – the “Harvard on the Hudson.”

One of the main reasons I chose to go to City College was Colin Powell. He helped establish a new center there that fostered leadership training and provided scholarships for students. I was fresh out of the Army and wanted to be a part of it.

The first time I met General Powell was at an event at CCNY. He was on campus to announce a donation to the college that would pay for the ‘unmet needs’ of student veterans. It was also an opportunity for Powell to get in the media and discuss his thoughts on the burgeoning “Post-9/11 GI Bill.” There was a debate in Washington at the time over how a new GI Bill might affect retention. My role was to give a short speech on ‘what it’s like’ being a student veteran. Colin Powell would introduce me.

Before the event, a quick meeting was arranged between the speakers in a backroom. As I walked in, I saw General Powell, reading over news articles online discussing the debate. He was on. He was working. Somebody mentioned the retention issue. Powell dismissed it, loudly, as nonsense.

He knew he had an important role to play. He understood that he had the power to move the debate, to move the dial. Well placed words and we’re that much closer.

He greeted me by speaking my name loudly like we had known each other forever. This is the first time we met. He seemed to know me. We talked about the Army. We talked about the 82nd Airborne Division. We talked about Iraq.

Minutes later, we were in the hall giving speeches.

He talked about City College. He talked about education. He thanked the donor.

And then he made a sharp statement about the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Nothing crazy, just expressing how he believed the retention issue would not be an issue at all.

Camera flashes and scribbled notes in pads.

Those words became the headlines the next day. He moved the dial.

Then I got up to give my short speech.

The thing I remember most about that speech is how General Powell watched. He was interested in what I had to say. And when I made a dry joke about not being able to put words together with more than two syllables (due to being an infantryman), he laughed loudly.

He was still a soldier.

But what I saw in action was something akin to magic. An innate sense of the local, the foreign, and the temperature in Washington – all at once. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it. This was an ability that came through hard work and experience. From City College to the Army to Vietnam to Washington.

A temperance forged over time.

I saw it again, years later, at the ceremony that welcomed ROTC back to City College after being booted from campus over forty years prior.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.”

As I wrote at the time:

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

But he wasn’t done. Had he just delivered the line he needed, the one that puts everyone at ease, he would have done his duty.

He went on:

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it.

It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

He could “walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.”

And he had an incredible ability to boil down a thing to its most basic and recognizable concept – one that appealed to everyone. And then deliver a sentence or a line or an idea that makes headlines the next day.

It’s an incredible ability and one that could easily be taken advantage of.

It’s nearly impossible to make it through a career as storied as Powell’s and come out unscarred.

He almost did it.

And unlike so many these days, he wasn’t “unapologetic” about it in some odd pantomime of toughness. He took actions, he reflected and thought critically about them, and when convinced, changed his mind.

He was constantly growing. He was willing to grow.

His death is a true loss. But his life and example is one that will inspire men and women inside and out of the military for generations.

“It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.”

General Colin Powell

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Checking in on Army ROTC at CUNY

ccny rotc coin

It has been two years since Army ROTC returned to CUNY, its headquarters at City College.

When I was a student veteran at the school and spoke with officials about the possibility of Army ROTC returning, many said that no one would join. I was often told I would have to show that there is a real demand from students to create real momentum for its return. I argued that it was “if you build it they will come” kind of thing. Former Secretary of State and retired General Powell famously says that he learned about ROTC at City College simply by walking past the office.

When ROTC returned in 2013, I think many people thought it would fall flat on its face. With a downsizing military, Army ROTC at CUNY wouldn’t attract the right numbers to justify its existence.

Last April I had the privilege of attending the second CUNY Army ROTC end-of-semester ball. The program is just starting to commission its first batch of new Second Lieutenants, and most of them were choosing to serve in the Army Reserves locally in New York. Speaking with some of the officers and NCOs who run the program, they energetically championed the urban program as one that is attracting a unique type of leader, with different experiences than your typical ROTC/USMA cadet.

The program is still “boutique” in its offerings. It doesn’t produce the massive numbers of officers that it did in the early 20th century when it was one of the largest in the country, but it also isn’t designed for that today. The program is set to expand to offer at CUNY’s community colleges this year, which will likely expand the overall number of CUNY cadets.

On social media, I see CUNY ROTC participating in events and adding a touch of military professionalism where there really was none.

Besides the benefits to the Army that we get from attracting CUNY students to the military, the presence of an ROTC contingent at CUNY schools helps to normalize (not militarize) the relationship between the military and the citizenry. Understanding the military, and especially understanding that the military is made up of real human beings, is much easier achieved if you have had some contact with the military, even if it’s just an ROTC student you share a class with two days a week.

That, to me, is much better than the alternative.

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Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and Student Veterans

city college campus quad beautiful

There’s been a lot of slinging going on about trigger warnings and microaggressions lately. For the uninitiated, trigger warnings are a kind of “spoiler alert” for those who might be affected by being exposed to something traumatic. For instance, this article on Life Is Strange makes the argument that the game might have done a better service to its players if it gave them a trigger warning because of the traumatic nature of the content. Others argue that by doing that, it robs the game of some of the suspense and surprise.

Microaggression is a term that I’m not sure really has a rock solid definition yet, but is pretty much a form of discrimination or passive aggressive hate.

“Oh you were in the military, huh? You weren’t able to get into college?”

There’s this back and forth going on about these things, with some people arguing that we need to be more sensitive to everyone else’s potential feelings. There’s nothing wrong with that. Marching towards a better world is a good thing, in my view.

But a lot of these conversations are very focused on students and especially students who may have faced some kind of hardship in the past. PTSD comes up a lot, and so naturally, it gets me thinking about student veterans.

I attended college between 2006-2011. The Iraq War was at its height both in terms of unpopularity and casualties. I was taking a lot of courses on the Middle East and international relations, and the Iraq War came up a lot. Professors spoke about the war as a self-evident failure. It was a joke and an embarrassment. Students nodded along and scribbled notes.

Not once did any of my professors ever ask “are there any veterans in the class?” It wasn’t even considered a possibility. Those who served were someone else, somewhere else.

For anyone that served overseas, especially in Iraq, it is likely that the experience was formative. It was for me. I was young and the work was extreme. My entire being is tied up with the name and the place, for good or for ill. And to have it spoken about so casually by college professors and students as a failure or a joke was painful as a new student, trying to make my way on campus, unsure of how I was supposed to behave.

Early in my college career, I’d challenge. I’d raise my hand and offer my perspective. I’d counter a student who stated categorically that American soldiers habitually raped Iraqi women. I’d correct misconceptions about the nature of military service and the rules of engagement. My jaw dropped when one student answered “about thirty or something” when asked how many soldiers had died in the Iraq War (the answer, at the time was more than 4,000). I felt like as one of the few student veterans on campus, I had a duty and responsibility to say something.

But it was exhausting.

I learned quickly that once you “out” yourself as a student veteran, that’s it. When people see you, you’re now the “Army guy.” It doesn’t go away, and whenever a topic that has anything to do with “the war” or the military comes up in class, all eyes fall on you.

Later, when I went to graduate school, I kept it a secret. I didn’t tell other students or my professors. I didn’t want them to see me as a military man. I wanted them to judge me fairly. When students or professors said off the wall shit, I kept my thoughts inside.

In fairness, it is an odd world where a war happens, soldiers fight it, and then come home and go to college while the same war rages on.

And in super-fairness, I went to the City College of New York and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – neither of them exactly right wing war bastions of death.

But, if we’re going to move towards a world that is more considerate of peoples’ past experiences, then that should include student veterans. Whether they are suffering from PTSD or not, if they fought overseas – or even if they didn’t – their minds and emotions are likely intertwined with that discussion. Veterans certainly don’t need a trigger warning – the idea of being warned before they’re offended is comical. But what they do deserve is a fair chance at being heard.

And an understanding that they exist.

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Leave Update: We’re only on the third day of a seven day binge

battling the dancing calcobrena in final fantasy iv kain cecil rosa yang
hqdefault

Yeesh.

I’m fully aware that I’ve neglected updates for the past three weeks. I fully intended to keep things going, but post-deployment leave has a way of keeping you looking at the bottom of the glass. It’s important to get that space and distance though, and as “normal” life resumes, so will the blog.

I have managed to keep the Facebook page updated, though. And if you’ve missed the ISOF GOLD posts, I’ve mostly been commenting on my favorite special operations forces over there.

I managed to keep somewhat productive, though. Last week I was invited by the Center for the Advancement of Leadership and Organizational Learning (CALDOL) to participate in West Point’s Mission Command Conference. Essentially, myself and a few other junior lieutenants stood up in front of hundreds of cadets and told real-life stories from our recent deployments. The cadets then used the story as a tool to discuss leadership with officers and NCO mentors who were also attending the conference. It was great to visit West Point and explore the campus, and seeing first-hand that West Point life only added fuel to my argument on why we need West Point.

It was also great just to see the CALDOL team at work. They are the folks behind the Company Command and Platoon Leader forums, which I’ve written about before. Seeing it in person confirmed to me that like many great Army programs, they are hidden away and under-utilized. I’m working on a future post highlighting some of the things they do, as I think the more exposure they have the better, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

Additionally, I also had the opportunity to speak at the CUNY ROTC’s Second Annual Military Ball at City College. It was amazing to see CUNY ROTC Cadets running the show, when it was only a few years ago when the idea of bringing ROTC back to CUNY was a pipe dream.

By the way, when I hear the acronym “CALDOL” I can’t help but think of the dancing Calcobrena from Final Fantasy IV. Sorry.

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What’s with the super-hate towards Gen. Petraeus? (that CUNY video)

petraeus is drinking from a cup

I saw this video a couple of days ago and it’s starting to pick up steam. As I’ve written about in the past, I’m of the belief that the much-vaunted “civilian-military divide” is a thing only as much as military people think it’s a thing. Civilians don’t sit around thinking about how disconnected from the military they are. We do that.

But, videos like this contribute to military people sitting there, incredulously, mouth agape, swearing that they don’t understand the society from which they came.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that more than any other military personality, Gen. Petraeus has received a disproportionate amount of hate.

It began with the “General Betray Us” ad in 2007 when he was testifying before Congress about the need to “surge” in Iraq.

When I was still a CUNY student at the City College of New York, I attended a talk given by Gen. Petraeus at the 92nd Street Y – not exactly an imperialist think-tank. I arrived early, and there were a handful of protestors outside, waving signs that called Gen. Petraeus a war criminal. The protestors heckled anyone who stepped inside, asking why we’d want to hear a man like that say anything.

General/Ambassador Eikenberry was up on stage, introducing Gen. Petraeus, who was walking up to the podium. As he read through the laundry list of the General’s accomplishments, he was using a mnemonic of “He was the Commander of forces in Iraq, then he was the Commander of….he was…” Right as he said another “He was” a protestor who had “infiltrated” (bought a ticket) jumped up and screamed “A WAR CRIMINAL! HE’S A WAR CRIMINAL! YOU’RE A WAR CRIMINAL!”

The room gasped and some people tried to shush or shame the protestor. Gen. Eikenberry waited for the person to be removed, which took an awkwardly long time. Gen. Petraeus held his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the light to try to see who it was.

The protestor was removed and the Gen. made an off-the-cuff remark about the protestor that made everyone laugh. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t offensive. It was making fun of himself if I remember correctly.

A couple of years later, I was in London for graduate school. In a small classroom, I sat with a handful of very bright students waiting for our professor of Middle East anthropology. We had just read an article critical about the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some quotes from General Petraeus were in it. I listened in on a conversation happening next to me between two students, one from the UK and one from Italy:

Italian Student: “You know, I have to admit, I kind of had to respect General Petraeus when I read that he has a PhD from Princeton.”
UK Student: “Oh please, the Nazis were highly educated too.”

My jaw literally dropped a bit and I had to bite my cheek not to flip my desk. Both statements were ridiculous. I didn’t say anything. It is terribly awkward to be the grizzled Army veteran in a Middle East studies class. And once that cat is out of the bag, it doesn’t go back in.

The Italian student’s statement was ridiculous because buried inside of it is the idea that having any kind of respect for General Petraeus because of his military service or character is unfathomable. But because he got a PhD from Princeton, now it’s okay. That kind of a statement just fuels the idea that there is this academic elite who can only respect and understand people who have their noses buried in a book.

The UK student’s statement offended for obvious reasons.

And now, of course, we have the video above, which I’m particularly embarrassed about as a CUNY graduate. I’m all for protest and free speech. And CUNY is a special university that has a rich history of being at the very least – skeptical – of the military. But I think that this trend of hate towards P4 is indicative of just how skewed the public is about the military.

Inside of the military, General Petraeus was a legend living in his own time. For most of us, he really only appeared on our radar after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom when he led the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and settled in Mosul. From there, he was relentless and lead MNSTC-I, which was charged with training Iraqi forces, then commanded the Combined Arms Center where he worked at writing (with others) the Counterinsurgency Manual. Then commanding forces in Iraq for the surge, CENTCOM Commander, then the odd promotion/demotion to commanding forces in Afghanistan after Gen. McChrystal was fired. Retirement, then Director of the CIA before his personal scandal had him retiring from that.

A storied career. Weaved inside of all that is a ton of media which got him on the front page of a bunch of magazines and on television dozens and dozens of times. He became “the” General that everyone knew.

Soldiers, however, know the rest of the story from people who served with him. How he was an avid runner and athlete, and didn’t believe in weight training – just good old-fashioned Army physical training. How when he commanded a Brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division, he had a physical fitness challenge for the paratroopers that no one could beat him in. How he was accidentally shot on a training range. And of course, his relentless, un-ending energy.

There was nothing bad to say about the guy. He was loved. One of the good guys.

But anti-war activists seized on General Petraeus as the target of their discontent. He became the poster boy for anti-war. For military people watching, it didn’t make any sense. Why Petraeus?

My theory is because it’s the only General they know. The media windstorm surrounding him (and which he helped stir) means that he is the General, and with it comes the good and the bad.

For the military and veteran communities, though, all we see is a bunch of self-righteous kids egging one of one our heroes. Without a good understanding of how this all happened, it is very easy to slip into a general hate for the protestors specifically and the society generally that promotes it. That’s not good.

Like I said, “closing the gap” on the civilian-military divide is only a real thing inasmuch as military people are willing to do so. But, admittedly, this crap doesn’t help.

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David Petraeus

Gen. Powell: “Military Service is honorable.”

city college great hall rotc
Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.
Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.

Returning to City College for the ceremony welcoming back ROTC was beautiful and surreal. It was strange to walk in the Great Hall and see so many military men and women criss-crossing the floor in sharp uniforms, and I had to remind myself at times that I was one of them. I felt uncomfortable like one would when inviting two friends to dinner that you know don’t get along, but are forced to be cordial. I studied the faces of faculty members whom I knew were at best, skeptical of this endeavor.

The ceremony began with the posting of the colors. The Francis Lewis High School JROTC Color Guard did the honors and looked superb.

The President of City College, Lisa Staino-Coico began speaking, then CUNY’s Chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, followed by the ROTC Cadet Commander, Major General Smith, all discussing how great it is that ROTC is returning and thanking those who had a role in bringing it back.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.” (Jeff Mays, DNAinfo)

That, I believe was Gen. Powell’s way of addressing the lingering apprehension among those who believe ROTC does not belong on campus.

Military service, is honorable.

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off-campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

And I agree.

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it. It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

The ceremony concluded with us singing the Army Song in the Great Hall.

Media:
After Decades, Boots Are Back on Campus (New York Times)
R.O.T.C. Returns to New York’s City College More Than Four Decades After Removal (New York Times, At War Blog)
ROTC Returns to CUNY (CUNY Press Release)
CUNY brings back long-lost ROTC program (New York Post)
Colin Powell Helps City College Re-Launch ROTC Program (DNAinfo)
Army ROTC returns to City College of New York (Army Press Release)

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At War: R.O.T.C. Returns to New York’s City College More Than Four Decades After Removal

soldier crawling rotc ccny 1968
ROTC high crawl

I wrote a short article for the New York Times At War Blog about today’s ceremony welcoming back ROTC to City College. This has been long in the making, and I’m personally looking forward to learning how it all went down.

The team at the New York Times did a great job digging up some photos from the late 1960s showing students mocking ROTC drills on the campus. Perfect find for the piece.

I’m really proud of this article and especially proud that ROTC is returning to City College today.

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Ghosts on campus: student-veterans of the Vietnam era at City College

I’ve been doing some research on the ROTC at the City College of New York and came across this piece in The Campus newspaper. It’s called “College: a vets’ eye view” and the author interviews some of the student-veterans on campus about their views on the war in Vietnam. I am completely sucked into these pieces because all of this happened at my alma mater. The same things I experienced at City between 2007 and 2010, student veterans faced forty years ago, and probably sixty years ago too after World War II.

But I never really knew. None of us did. All of this information is lost. Ghosts of the past walk the campus, experiencing the same things over and over and over again. All this gnashing of teeth and tormented thoughts. The answers all there, buried in texts from the past. This has all been done before.

Most of the veterans, although they agreed that anti-war protest is important and necessary, felt that they were somewhere to the political right of most students, if not in their attitudes, certainly in their actions. It’s possible that is because most of them are married and working at least part-time, and feel that they have a greater investment in the “system” than other students have.

For the same reason, most of them felt that their attitude toward their education was somewhat more pragmatic than most other students’. Several said that their only interest in the school was to get a degree as fast as possible.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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College: a vets' eyes view
Returned veterans speak out

ROTC Wants Rule by Force

ROTC Wants Rule by Force

The City College of New York recently announced that they had digitally archived all editions of the undergraduate student newspaper of record from 1907 to 1981. I’ve been poking around for a few minutes and I can waste a lot of time there.

When I was at City College I founded the veterans club, or rather, resurrected the veterans club. While looking for a name, I discovered through old issues of The Campus newspaper that a group that called itself the “City College Veterans Association” had existed for many years on campus. So I just started a club with that name. CCNY historically hosted a vibrant military/veteran community on campus that faded away with the elimination of ROTC during the Vietnam War. That culture I’m happy to say is being revived, slowly.

Anyway, here’s a little snippet from the front page of the April 1, 1947 issue of The Campus, proving that satirical news is an old, old idea.

This particular article reminds me of a flyer a veteran friend of mine made with me. It was a flyer announcing the veteran club on campus, and we wanted to add a line at the bottom assuaging people’s fears so we wrote:

CCVA is not a political organization. CCVA does not take a position on the wars and is only here to help improve the lives of veterans on campus.

As a joke, we made a flyer with an alternate disclaimer that read:

CCVA is a political organization. We take a militant position on the wars and we are here to militarize the campus. (or something to that effect)

Reading back on the real disclaimer, I’m struck by how apologetic in tone it seems. I remember at the time feeling that it was necessary to have it in there given the political climate on campus, even though that was probably an imagined climate. Most students were completely uninterested in the wars or what activities were happening on campus. It’s also interesting that we used the term “the wars” as if they were truly perpetual. Not the Iraq War and Afghanistan War. Just ‘the wars.’

Anyway, you can access the entire archive here.

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ccva general flyer

ROTC back at CUNY after more than 40 years

colin powell rotc cadet
A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)
A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

While doing some research for an earlier post, I learned that Army ROTC is headed back to the City University of New York (CUNY) and specifically the City College of New York (CCNY), my alma mater. I had heard through the grapevine that this was in the works, but nothing was officially official. It won’t start until the fall, but it looks like the cat’s out of the bag.

I know a lot of people were involved in making this happen, and maybe when ROTC officially opens at CCNY I’ll write a longer piece on how it all went down. For now, I’m just happy to know that it is actually happening. CUNY, CCNY, and the Army will all be better for it.

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