Colin Powell, a child of immigrants who became a top U.S. general and secretary of state, died October 18 of complications from COVID-19. He was 84.

Hard working and optimistic, Powell rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. military before helping guide American diplomacy early this century. Along the way, he served as a top adviser to four U.S. presidents, including leaders from both major political parties.

Powell was unanimously confirmed as the 65th U.S. secretary of state on January 20, 2001. He was the first African American to serve as the country’s top diplomat and stayed in the role until January 26, 2005.

“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” President Biden said October 18. “Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity.”

Colin Powell walking into Capitol (© Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell pays respects to former President George H.W. Bush as he lies in state at the U.S. Capitol in Washington December 4, 2018. (© Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken remembered Powell as “simply and completely a leader,” who guided America’s diplomatic corps with experience, patriotism and decency.

“He believed deeply that America was an exceptional nation, that we could and should lead with confidence and humility, and that the world was safer when the United States was engaged and its allies and partners were united,” Blinken said, speaking from the State Department.

Powell reached back to help others. He was the founding chairman of the America’s Promise Alliance, through which he and his wife, Alma, helped at-risk youth develop skills to succeed. The couple married in 1962 and had three children.

“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father and grandfather and a great American,” Powell’s family said October 18.

Military service

Born in New York’s Harlem neighborhood April 5, 1937, the son of immigrants from Jamaica, Powell began his military career at the City College of New York where he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Powell served as a soldier in Vietnam and was awarded a Purple Heart and a Soldier’s Medal for rescuing fellow passengers from a burning helicopter despite being injured himself. During his 35-year military career, Powell also was stationed in South Korea and Germany, and oversaw military and humanitarian missions.

He was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, and served in the top military post under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In that role, he guided the U.S. military through the end of the Cold War and humanitarian responses to crises, aiding famine victims in Somalia and working with the United Nations to end the war in the Balkans.

Colin Powell walking with group of service members (© Bob Pearson/AFP/Getty Images)
General Colin Powell (center), then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reviews U.S. troops in Panama City January 5, 1990. (© Bob Pearson/AFP/Getty Images)

His “Powell Doctrine” set out carefully considered standards for when and how the United States should utilize military force.

After Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Powell helped build a multination coalition to uphold international law.

Strengthening diplomacy

After retiring from the military in 1993, Powell served alongside former President Jimmy Carter in a three-person delegation to help Haiti transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy.

As secretary of state, Powell worked to improve U.S. relationships with Russia and China. He also supported expanding U.S. efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and malaria around the world.

Powell was twice awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in public service.

Colin Powell standing as Barbara Bush fastens medal around his neck and President H.W. Bush looks on (© Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty Images)
First lady Barbara Bush fastens the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Powell’s neck as President George H.W. Bush watches during a ceremony at the White House in Washington July 3, 1991. (© Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty Images)

Powell considered his success a testament to the promise of the United States. “I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country,” he said of his career during his confirmation as top diplomat.

Blinken said part of Powell’s legacy is how he inspired so many to share this belief.

“Colin Powell dedicated his extraordinary life to public service because he never stopped believing in America,” Blinken said. “And we believe in America in no small part because it helped produce someone like Colin Powell.”