By Jim Dresbach, Pentagram Staff Writer March 8, 2013
According to official State Department records, Colin Powell led or participated in 214 diplomatic missions as secretary of state. From 2001 through 2005, the once Army four-star general conducted either solo or joint diplomatic visits with President George W. Bush across the continents of the globe.
With due respect to the cosmopolitan centers of Paris, Brussels and Rome, where Powell visited for peace-seeking meetings, world capitals did not compare to the hustle and bustle of Fort Myer. The base served as Powell's home on three occasions during his military and public service career.
Powell unrolled the family welcome mat at Fort Myer's quarters 23A, quarters 27 and the venerable and historic quarters 6 as the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman from 1989 to his military retirement in 1993. While Myer brick and mortar provided shelter, Powell could often be found in back of his residence or garage fine-tuning his passion. Behind quarters 23, no historical marker reads "Gen. Powell tinkered here" but the former Secretary of State -- a man who advised Ronald Reagan, a pair of Bush administrations and Bill Clinton -- got his hands dirty working on Volvos within a few strides of the officers club.
The first time [at Fort Myer], I think, was back in 1983 when I worked for [Defense] Secretary Caspar] Weinberger, and I was in quarters 23A right across from the [officers] club," he remembered. "The little parking lot behind the quarters was big enough for two cars. The MPs always took a dim view of me disassembling cars. I was surprised I got away with it because it was not the most elegant presentation to have before the officers club."
Later in the 1980s, after a quick stay at Fort McNair, the Powells again resided in Lee Avenue's quarters 27. A command assignment at Fort McPherson in Georgia preceded his stint as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and a moving day into Myer's quarters 6.
While a general's row address was as attractive as the scenic view of Washington D.C., the abundance of garage space was prime motivation for Powell's Volvo addiction.
"The best part of those quarters was that behind the house were all these garages, so I had three of those garage bays," the 12th Joint Chiefs chairman recalled. "They were always filled with dead Volvos being stripped. My driver, Sgt. Otis Pearson, and I would find dead cars and drag them home on the end of a rope. We tried to do it late at night, so it didn't get too much attention."
Sept. 30, 1993, the day Powell retired from the military, is a significant date in the general's life and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall history. That day on Summerall Field, a sitting chief executive, a former president, first ladies and ordinary Soldiers saluted Powell.
"It was memorable, and of course, when we lived at 23 and 27, we could look out [on Summerall Field] from our kitchen window and see the retirement ceremonies taking place," Powell said. "That was an important part of living there. We heard a lot of music coming off that parade field.
"President [Bill] Clinton was there. Vice President [Al] Gore was there. Former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush along with Hillary Clinton were there," Powell said of his retirement ceremony. "It was a heck of a turnout. I was enormously honored and flattered, and I really wasn't looking for that type of ceremony -- that big and elaborate."
With the retirement ceremony concluded, Powell fondly remembered the reception -- and the surprise gift he received at a Conmy Hall reception.
"We had a wonderful reception across the street," Powell continued. "And to my enormous delight and surprise after the receiving line was finished and everybody had gone through, President Clinton and Vice President Gore and Secretary of Defense [Les] Aspin presented me with a junker Volvo. It was such a clunker. I didn't know how they found it. My driver dragged it on to Fort Myer, so it could be a gift to me from the president of the United States. It was the one Volvo I wasn't able to fix. But when the president gives you a car, you just can't junk it right away. So, I put it in one of my garages behind the quarters at Fort Myer -- quarters 6. I waited a respectable amount of time -- about a year or so -- and we snuck it out of there and gave it a quiet burial."
A favorite Powell Fort Myer anecdote centers around JBM-HH base tradition, one of his many permanent changes of station and a moving crew that assisted in his family's transition.
"I have one story that's my favorite. I've never really told it before because it takes a little while to tell," Powell said during the telephone interview. "When we were moving from 23A, the movers came, and they brought a bunch of good old boys from somewhere down in southwest Virginia, who never had been on a military base their whole lives. They were doing the packing up. So while they were packing up stuff, they were pretty excited to be next to Arlington Cemetery and see all the hustle and bustle and the generals and Soldiers going by.
"They had a good time those two days packing me up," he continued with the story. "As they were finishing and I was thanking them, they said: 'You know general, there's one question we have to ask; we just have to ask it. We always thought it was a special thing to get buried at Fort Myer and Arlington Cemetery, but we couldn't believe what we saw yesterday. We saw a pickup truck going by with a casket in it and two GI's sitting on the casket. And we thought, good Lord, that's not very dignified.'
"'I said, 'You saw what?'
"'We saw a pickup truck go by with a casket in it, and two GI's sitting on the casket.'
"Then it dawned on me, and I broke out laughing," Powell continued. "I told them that wasn't a funeral. I told them those were The Old Guard Soldiers going to practice. Then I drove them down the end of the road [Lee Avenue], so they could watch an actual funeral leave The Old Post Chapel and go into Arlington Cemetery. They were very much reassured that the Army still had its traditions."
Powell is still a frequent visitor to JBM-HH. In December, he conducted a book signing at the Fort Myer Exchange, and he takes advantage of the Army atmosphere as much as possible.
"I get to the PX at Fort Myer all the time on a fairly regular basis," he said. "We still pick up all our medical prescriptions down at the clinic, Rader Clinic. So Fort Myer means a lot to me and my wife. We had a lot of challenging assignments while we were there. It was from quarters 6 that we supervised the invasion of Panama and Desert Shield and Desert Storm. We watched a lot of history go by -- the end of the Cold War. Fort Myer will always be an important part of our lives."