The Vicious Booby Trap That Nailed Colin Powell

“They used a rather straightforward method of disinfectant. They put a cloth through the bottom of my foot. Used a probe to push it through the top . . . kind of like a shoe shine rag.” —Colin Powell, on the hole in his foot

In A Nutshell

Back in the 1960s, Colin Powell was a young soldier fighting communist forces in Vietnam. However, he had way more than bullets and bombs to worry about. The enemy had spread booby traps across the country, and during one hike in the brush, Powell learned the hard way that you should always look where you step.

The Whole Bushel

While he’s probably best remembered for his fateful UN speech that sparked the Iraq War, Colin Powell has led quite an eventful life. A career soldier for 35 years, Powell ended up as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was eventually appointed as the first African-American Secretary of State in US history. But long before his days of working in the White House, Powell was a young infantry captain humping the boonies in Vietnam, and it’s here he ran across (literally) one of the nastiest booby traps in the history of guerrilla warfare.

Punji sticks were every grunt’s worst nightmare. Because they were so easy to make, these treacherous traps were spread all over Vietnam. A Viet Cong guerrilla simply had to cut a bamboo pole, sharpen it to a point, and then harden it in fire. The stakes were then placed in pits, in riverbeds, on hills, and helicopter landing zones. Stepping on a punji stick often resulted in serious leg wounds, but records show even body parts like the face, mouth, scrotum, and rectum ended up on the sharp end of a stake now and again.

In addition to puncture wounds, soldiers had to worry about infection, because the Viet Cong dipped stakes in poison or human/animal excrement . . . something Colin Powell found out the hard way. During his first tour, Powell and five other soldiers were tramping through the jungle when the young captain stumbled into a punji pit. The stick was so sharp it went straight through his boot and out the other side of his foot. Making matters worse, the stake was completely covered in buffalo dung.

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At first, Powell didn’t realize how much trouble he was in and decided to shrug off the pain. Thirty minutes later, he could barely walk. Using a stick as a crutch, he hobbled his way to a nearby Special Forces camp where medics discovered his foot had swollen up and turned a sickly purple. Powell was then transferred to division headquarters where a doctor looked at the hole and came up with the simplest solution possible. The doctor took a rag, put it on a stick, and shoved it in and out of Powell’s wound, cleaning out all the filth. With the help of antibiotics, Captain Powell was back on both feet in a matter of no time, and in addition to a cool war story, the punji stick incident earned him a weird nickname. When Powell was appointed Secretary of State in 2001, President Bush dubbed him “Balloon Foot.”

Show Me The Proof

Academy of Achievement: General Colin L. Powell
Department of the Army: Viet Cong Booby Traps
National Library of Medicine: Punji stick wounds
Colin Powell, by Christopher D. O’Sullivan

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