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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Military Meditation

dan harris nightline

Around the time I started to transition out of the Army, I started to get very interested in “productivity.” I followed blogs like lifehack and 43 Folders. I kept reading articles about and by people like David Allen and Merlin Mann. I developed my own system for “getting things done” and have revised and revised over the years to get to where I am now (it’s still a monster,  but it’s my monster). Somewhere along the way I came across Gretchen Rubin. I found her through her blog, The Happiness Project, which later became a best-selling book. In it, she describes her journey on finding happiness through self-experimentation. It’s a fantastic book which I eagerly read when it came out and have given as a gift a bunch of times.

Fortunately, Gretchen maintains her blog and posts pretty regularly. She frequently posts interviews with people in the field of whatever it is she is researching at the time. Right now, she’s writing a book on ‘habits.’ Back in February, she posted an interview with ABC news correspondent Dan Harris. Now, if you are a very close reader of this blog or you know me personally, then you are already aware of my fascination with early morning news television. Wherever I am, I’ll always watch the local news, mostly because it is often extremely awkward, and then if I’m around, I’ll stick around for the highly-polished national news. It’s hardly news anymore – it’s more like BuzzFeed – just a mashup of some news items with some celebrity stuff and viral videos. It’s supposed to wake you up, I guess.

Anyway, my preference is Good Morning America, and I usually only get to see it on weekends, when Dan Harris is on. I have always liked Dan Harris. He’s done some good war reporting. He’s also pretty dry and can be sarcastic. So when Dan Harris popped on Gretchen Rubin’s blog, it was, for me, one of those weird intersections in life of people I admire. In the interview, I learned that Dan Harris meditates and just wrote a book aggressively titled “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.” As someone who has flirted with meditation before (more on that below), I pre-ordered the book and shortly thereafter, shipped off to the National Training Center. After returning home, I finished up one book and then jumped into Dan’s book.

I’m not reviewing the book here. I’ll just say that it was really good. Funny, well-written, and practically helpful. If you’re interested in meditation, mindfulness, or the drama that goes on behind the scenes at ABC news, you will enjoy the book. In it, he refers to the Marine Corps’ experiments with teaching meditation to marines as a way to make – better marines. For its part, the Army has embraced “resiliency” as not just a thing you should be, but an entire methodology for teaching and living (meditation in the classic, Buddhist tradition is not currently part of the instruction, though).

When I was going to college in New York, I learned about a guy named David Wagner who was offering free meditation sessions to veterans. At the time, I was organizing the City College Veterans Association and wanted to see what it was all about. Like Dan says in the book, meditation’s biggest problem is bad public relations. The stereotypical meditator is the touchy-feely hippy who is lost in his own world. There is probably no subculture of people that might be more skeptical of meditation than the military – with your “dip and velcro and all your gear.”

I met David in his Manhattan office. He was about my height, with a full beard and dark, wavy hair. He smiled widely as he greeted me, but wasn’t overly friendly. As we walked into his office, I looked around the room and saw a sticker that read “Fuck the Naysayers.” We sat down, and he excitedly shared with me a theory he had about war veterans, based on things he has read and his own study of meditation. I’m paraphrasing here – it’s been over five years since this conversation – but he explained that there is a deep inner understanding that meditation practitioners work to achieve through years of patient work. He spoke about Greek mythology and the notion of the warrior achieving enlightenment through combat. We discussed the overwhelming feelings that overtake a person the first time bullets fly overhead. His theory, is that at that moment, a person is fully present – which is one of the goals of meditation, after all. The fear and excitement of combat supercharges a person into the here and now by necessity. That soldier has touched that deep inside ‘thing’ for a moment, and then the adrenaline goes away and Dan’s ‘voice in the head’ comes back and takes over.

You know that half second of chest-constricting terror that happens when you see the demon’s faces for the first time in The Devil’s Advocate? That’s apparently how war feels, constantly. –@babyballs69

David believes that through meditation, veterans can recapture that feeling of being completely present – the exhilaration of combat (without the fear) through meditation, and ultimately, be a better person. I liked what he was saying, and it made sense. What I especially liked is that David wasn’t approaching help for veterans as a charity case to address PTSD – which I’ve seen over and over again when it comes to doing anything for veterans.

While meditation might help veterans with PTSD (I haven’t seen the research), David was more interested in using meditation as a way to build the next-greatest generation.

To put it plainly, his thought was that through the crucible of combat, veterans achieved something that most people will never achieve – a kind of self-enlightenment that was actualized, and then locked away, deep inside the body. Through meditation, that “thing” could be unlocked. The classes were free, so what did I have to lose?

I met with David over the course of a couple of months and began meditating. It was a frustrating process, because it takes real discipline and buy-in. Over those months, I sometimes meditated regularly and sometimes stopped for long periods of time. David was always nice about it when I said I hadn’t meditated in awhile, pointing out that if I looked at a chart of my life, I was still meditating a lot more than I had over the past twenty seven years. During that time when I was meditating regularly, I felt good, and strangely, it manifested itself in the gym – I was working out harder than ever.

In my last year at City College, I tried connecting more veterans with David and meditation. I pushed, but it was too hard a sell at the time and required a lot more energy from me than I could give to make it happen. It’s unfortunate, because I think David is really on to something. As Dan’s book points out, the research is there. Meditation is not just some lovey-dovey cosmic thing – it’s proven by science to improve a number of things. In Dan’s case, he claims to be at least 10% happier. Not a bad return on the investment. So, I leave this all here for you to pick through and think about. I know I’m convinced.

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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