By Sharon Richie, PhD, School of Nursing Director
I first met General Colin Powell in 1980 when he was a major general and I a newly minted Army Nurse Corps major. I was at my first “ROCKS” meeting in Washington, DC, a support organization for field grade officers “of color” that had about 200 male members. At the time, I was the third woman selected to the group. At a reception following the meeting, GEN Powell introduced himself, saying that I now had 200 brothers to look after me during my career and to call upon him at any time. Later, at our monthly meetings, he always checked on how I was doing, asking “So what is your next step?”
Over the years, GEN Powell kept asking the same question and was thrilled when I decided to apply for the White House Fellows (WHF) program in 1982. The non-partisan program is open to all, regardless of party affiliation. GEN Powell had been a White House Fellow himself in1972 and valued his time and experience. Years after that assignment, GEN Powell served as chief of staff for Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger. When my WHF class visited that office, my “ROCKS” brother—GEN Powell—gave me an encouraging wink, which spoke volumes: I was not alone. We also saw each other every year at the “ROCKS” scholarship ball at Andrews Air Force base. I still treasure the photo taken in1989 of him, myself and my former husband Paul Patrick Henri (shown below).
In 2009 I was honored to be included in Charles Garcia’s book Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows. Garcia had interviewed over 220 WHF’s, and I was quoted along side GEN Powell in Chapter 6, which was entitled, “Leaders have a Laser-Like Focus on their People.” GEN Powell’s section included a story that exemplified “the sort of transformative impact that leadership can have.” My section gave examples of how I used those lessons as the chief nurse of various Army Medical Centers. The irony is that I learned my leadership lessons from my WHF mentor and from a general who kept up with a junior officer her entire career and beyond. I also was fortunate to be able to see GEN Powell at the annual WHF seminars, which updated all WHF’s on the current administration’s work.When selected for promotion to colonel, I asked then US Secretary of State Powell to do the honors. He said yes immediately but stipulated that the ceremony had to be held in Washington, given his schedule. I explained that I was funding all of my brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins to attend the ceremony and that I could not afford to house them in DC. At the time, I was a student at the Army War College in Carlise Barracks, Penn., where I could afford to rent out a local motel for all my relatives. Given that this might be my last promotion, Secretary Powell suggested a mutual friend, a general officer who would thoughtfully review my entire career for my family at the ceremony. I thought, how sensitive of him to suggest this, and he was right. My family finally found out what I had been doing all of those years on active duty.
After 26 years of active duty, I served three years in the United Arab Emirates helping to upgrade their military healthcare system. Upon my return, I interviewed active duty Army nurses, who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those interviews later turned into a book entitled Angel Walk: Nurses at War in Iraq and Afghanistan. My dream was to have the book endorsed by GEN Powell. Instead, he called me to say what a fine book it was, but he was prohibited from endorsing any books because of the avalanche of requests it generated in his office. I shared that his “stated” endorsement, written or not, meant the world to me. Still his question was the same, “What will you do next?” I answered that I did not know, but he would be the first to know it when it came to me.
My unexpected invitation to apply for the position as the Director of the School of Nursing at Norwich University was a long-shot given the weather (I was in Florida at the time) and my prejudices about academia. However, once I visited the campus, met the students, faculty members and senior administrators, I fell in love. It was a dream job to be able to be with my soldiers and nurses again. I held my breath waiting for the decision, and once it came, my first action was to text my general. He answered immediately, congratulating me and saying that clearly I had one more assignment before I really retired. “I am so very proud of you,” he wrote.
The past one-and-a-half years has been a whirlwind of getting oriented to my new job and getting my arms around my students and faculty members. It has been pure joy. I continuously share with others Mark Nepo’s quote, “Joy in what we do is not an added feature; it is a sign of deep health.” That quote sustains me now and led me to contact my general to ask him to share with our Norwich University community what service to others has meant to him as a leader. He did not disappoint.
Amy Bidell is a senior nursing student here at Norwich and the president of the Student Nurses Association. A member of the Navy ROTC program, Amy was chosen to listen to two thought leaders, GEN Sullivan and GEN Powell, during the latter’s visit to campus in November 2014 in a private session with nine other cadets. Amy shared her thoughts with me about the session:
“General Powell and General Sullivan, both of whom sat at the table with us to speak, did not speak of current political or national security issues as I had imagined. Both gentlemen spoke primarily of family and the importance of having a solid support system at home throughout one’s career, whether it be a military career or not. General Powell told one story in particular in which he came home in his new uniform the day after receiving a new rank. The moment he proudly walked into the door with his new insignia, his daughter yelled to Mrs. Powell, “Mom, the GI Joe is home!”
“From both General Powell and General Sullivan I realized the importance of still having a ‘human’ element to one’s life, even if only behind closed doors. General Powell and General Sullivan are obviously both high-ranking prestigious military leaders. Yet based on their stories, it was apparent they both have an aspect of their lives that can be found in many American homes of any social class: a loving family with whom they have fun. This aspect of their life, while maybe small in comparison with the time-consuming nature of their careers, seemed to be the glue that held all other aspects of their life together and gave it meaning.”
These words from one of my nursing students showed me that the lessons learned from my general stood the test of time and were still being passed on to our next generation of leaders. I thank GEN Powell today as much as I did in 1980. He is the epitome of leadership, service to country and balance with a strong family life.
Editor’s note: Visit the Todd Lecture Series website to watch GEN Powell’s 2014 Veterans Day talk at Norwich University.