CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait –
The young medic who bears a general’s name was just wrapping up his day when news broke that the man for whom he was named had died. His first thought was that life was too short.
His second thought was of the general’s life, which had meant so much to so many around the world that the medic’s grandfather named him “CollinPowell” the day he was born in Cameroon.
For Spc. Collinpowell Ebai, a medic deployed here in support of Operation Spartan Shield, Gen. Colin Powell’s passing is both a time to mourn and a reminder of a regimented and hopeful childhood that made him the Soldier and man he is today.
“My first name is a combination of the first and last name of my grandfather’s most-admired leader of all time,” said Ebai, who was born in Kumba, Cameroon, a month before Powell retired as a four-star general. “In fact, my uncles still call me, ‘the general.’”
The hopes Ebai’s grandfather placed in him didn’t just manifest in the name he bears – they also extended to the rigorous academic pace his grandfather – a schoolteacher – put him and his aunt, two months older than Ebai, through in their childhood.
“Grandpa’s famous drill was making us write our names in full on an abnormally long sheet of paper,” Ebai said. “As a child, I hated this exercise because it took away my soccer time in the evenings.”
As they wrote, the pair also listened as Ebai’s grandfather reminded them that failure was never an option.
“He would always say that if the school was looking for one person to represent the class as best student, both me and my aunt had to be selected,” Ebai said.
Although being a soccer star was not in the cards, Ebai flourished in school.
“I was on the top of my class the entire time I was in school – and if I wasn’t, it was my aunt,” he said. “His no-failure mentality, along with love, emotional and spiritual support developed a fighter within me and a motivation that drives me to be excellent even now.”
As he excelled in school, Ebai also got curious about his namesake – something adults, including his teachers, seemed to make a fuss over.
“There was a plethora of people who challenged my character and pushed me to carry myself the way the general would,” Ebai said. “I had no choice but to find out who this man was.”
Among the things the young Ebai found out was that the man he was named after served as a general and Secretary of State, and that he was an influential leader in America.
In 2016, at his father’s urging, Ebai began the immigration process to America. Yet again, the Soldier’s name played a part in the decisions he would later make.
“During my visa interview, the interviewer was impressed by my story and told me that I would be a great asset to the United States military,” Ebai said.
Ebai set foot on American soil in May 2016 – May 22, he remembers exactly – and wanted to continue his academic career. He had excelled in Cameroon and chose biology as his major, which he hoped would lead to a career in trauma medicine.
Although he performed well as a student, two thoughts gnawed at Ebai – the general’s life and the advice the interviewer gave him during his visa processing.
“I was considering the military and had taken a peek into the benefits of serving,” Ebai said. “One day, I remember being curious about the man whose name I bear and ended up reading about him that night until I fell asleep. I read about him once a week after that.”
Among the things Ebai said fascinated him were that Powell’s family also immigrated to the United States and that Powell was also African-American. Inspired by those similarities, Ebai enlisted in the Maryland Army National Guard in 2017.
“I decided I was going to join the same military branch that Colin Powell served in. I was going to serve in the Army to make a difference,” Ebai said. “On my basic training graduation day, I received my naturalization certificate (to become an American citizen). I rewarded myself with a book about Colin Powell – if you’ve ever been to basic training, buying a book is usually not the first thing you want to do on graduation day.”
Since entering the Army, Ebai has completed his bachelor’s degree and currently works as a police officer with the Metro Transit Police Department in the Washington, D.C., area, when not serving on active duty with the National Guard.
Ebai was wrapping up his shift Tuesday afternoon when he learned that his namesake had died. Although he never met Powell, Ebai said the news hit him hard.
“You know the bed that we use to examine patients? I had to sit on it for a while,” he said. “It hit me that no matter how long he lived, it was too short.”
A reason for that thinking was the impact Powell had on Ebai’s life and that he never got to meet the general.
“I always wanted to meet him – not because I wanted some kind of recognition, but because I wanted to let him know how much he was loved outside of the U.S.,” Ebai said.
To honor Powell’s legacy, Ebai said he wants to live a life that provides impact, and that begins with how he treats others, much like Powell did.
“His passing is something that will stay with me for my entire life,” Ebai said. “I want to wake up focused on making someone smile, helping someone or making someone feel valuable.
“He was someone I’ve always respected and wanted to emulate,” Ebai added. “I just wish he lived a bit longer.”