Gus Pagonis

William “Gus” Pagonis

When first asked his thoughts on Colin Powell, Lt. Gen. William “Gus” Pagonis recalled the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State as a “tremendous leader.”

“He really had his act together,” Pagonis said earlier this week from his horse farm in Butler County. “He did more for the State Department and the troops in the field than any Secretary of State before him and any Secretary of State after him. He really cared about the troops and did a great job as a leader and diplomat. He had more conflicts and more success than any other chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the right guy for the job. He had a great career and ended on a high note.”

Powell died Monday of COVID-19 complications. He was 84. Powell was the first Black person to serve in the roles of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.

Pagonis, a Charleroi native who retired with a three-star general rank, had known Powell for many years in a relationship that dates back to the 1970s.

Pagonis served as Norman Schwarzkopf’s logistics officer during the first Gulf War. He was the first American to arrive in Saudi Arabia, hours before it was decided to send troops. A major general at the time, Pagonis worked to supply more than 500,000 U.S. Army troops for that war.

In his role, Pagonis often communicated with Powell.

“Powell always insisted we be prepared for combat,” Pagonis recalled.

It showed.

Pagonis recalled a strategy in which the troops were able to get behind the enemy by going through the desert.

“He told me, ‘If we pull this off, we’ll save a lot of lives,’” Pagonis said. “Everybody expected us to attack from the south and by water. Nobody thought we’d ever go through the desert.”

Those leadership skills that Powell possessed are what Pagonis thinks would have made Powell a great president, if that was a path he would have chosen.

“He could have run for president. He didn’t want to,” Pagonis said. “I think he would have been outstanding. He would have known how to hire people and get the most out of them. He would have known how to train people.”

A leadership capability Pagonis said Powell possessed – and it was a trait he admired about Powell – was his willingness to accept blame or criticism.

“He always told me, if there’s a failure under your command you have to say it’s your fault,” Pagonis recalled Powell saying. “If somebody is not performing, maybe they don’t understand what you’re saying. If they’re not the right person for the job, then maybe you have to make a move. Any good leader is willing to say, ‘It’s my fault.’”

That’s just what Powell did as his reputation took a major hit in 2003.

During his address as Secretary of State to the U.N. Security Council, Powell cited faulty information to claim that Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed weapons of mass destruction. No Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were ever found.

His State Department was dubious of the military and intelligence communities’ claims concerning weapons of mass destruction, but he presented the administration’s case that Saddam Hussein posed a major global and regional threat. A month later, President George W. Bush gave the go-ahead for the invasion

Powell had called the presentation, seen as a turning point in U.S.-U.N. relations, “a blot” on his career.

“He took the hit,” Pagonis said. “It was his only bad mark. Not every leader would have taken the blame for that.”

Pagonis said he had the pleasure of attending some of the speeches Powell made over the years.

“He was a tremendous speaker,” Pagonis said. “I took a couple of speeches for him. He put me on the speaking circuit. I didn’t get the $100,000 for a speech. I attended several of his speeches. He was a great speaker, very entertaining.

Pagonis said he would chat with Powell periodically with the last conversation coming just a couple of months ago.

“When he first got diagnosed with the blood cancer, we talked,” Pagonis said. “He was in good spirits. I think he functioned all the way to the end. He had two great careers and a great family. I’m accepting it like everything else. It happens to all of us. I think he did what he wanted to do. He was a very sincere, educated American. He served his country well.”

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