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Breaking Ranks

Larry Wilkerson
Retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson with some of his charges in Macfarland Middle School's Colin L. Powell Leadership Club, the last remnant of his long friendship with Powell. (Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

Often described as the ultimate loyal soldier -- and, like Wilkerson, a Vietnam combat veteran -- Powell has largely kept his mouth zipped. Whatever public regret or private disappointment Powell may have about selling the Iraq war, he still supports the commander in chief -- most recently during the flap over domestic electronic eavesdropping -- and occasionally dines with Bush.

Now consulting in the private sector, Powell declined to answer questions about Wilkerson's version of episodes in their tenure together. "General Powell considers Colonel Wilkerson a good friend of 16 years," an aide said by e-mail. "He has no other comment."

Powell did address Wilkerson's central charge of secretive White House decision-making in an interview with the BBC in December. "I wouldn't characterize it the way Larry has, calling it a cabal," Powell said. "Now what Larry is suggesting in his comments is that very often maybe Mr. Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney would take decisions in to the president that the rest of us weren't aware of. That did happen, on a number of occasions."

The White House offered no specific rebuttal of Wilkerson's views, but a spokesman gave a statement taking issue with the notion that Bush was somehow misled about the need to invade Iraq (a charge Wilkerson hasn't made outright). "President Bush made his decision to go to war in Iraq based on the intelligence given to him by the intelligence community. It was the president's decision, and the president made that decision based on the totality of the evidence presented to him," said the spokesman, who asked that his name not be used "because of the nature of the topic."

Interviewed by CNN in November, Rumsfeld termed the suggestion of a cabal "ridiculous" and said of Wilkerson, "In terms of having firsthand information, I just can't imagine that he does."

Making a Military Man

Wilkerson, 60, got his start with Powell as a speechwriter and you can see why. He tends to talk in fully formed paragraphs. Over a lunch of barbecued chicken salad, he begins his life story this way:

"I was born in Gaffney, South Carolina, which is right near Spartanburg, which is right near Greenville. My dad was a World War II vet -- B-17 bombardier and navigator. He came home from the war and entered the South Carolina National Guard, so I kind of grew up riding around in Jeeps and shooting .30-caliber machine guns. I shot my first Browning .30-caliber at 9. That is to say, the National Guardsmen made me think I was shooting it."

The family later moved to Houston, where Wilkerson graduated from high school. (Aside here on George W. Bush: "I see hard-headedness, I see arrogance, I see hubris, I see what I saw in a lot of Texans.")

Wilkerson went north to study philosophy and English lit at Bucknell but quit college in his senior year. He was newly married yet determined to go to Vietnam. It was 1966.

"I felt an obligation because my dad had fought," he says, "and I thought that was kind of your duty."

Eventually he got there as an Army officer, spending a year in what he calls the "hottest combat" possible, piloting his OH-6A helicopter close to the jungle canopy, scouting out the enemy on behalf of the infantry.

"We got shot at nearly every day," he says. A brush with death came when a sniper's bullet pierced the helicopter's cockpit plexiglass, but he was never wounded or shot down. "My men used to call me the Teflon guy. . . . I felt like I had some kind of protective coating on me because I think I flew about 1,100 combat hours, which is a lot of hours."

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