Joe served as a tank driver in the Army during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991. During his deployment to Iraq he was present throughout the hundred hour war. After returning home he developed symptoms of what would later come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome. He also discusses watching the Global War on Terrorism and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 unfold.
Interview conducted on April 28, 2016 in Manhattan, New York
Present: Richard Hayden and Joseph Collins
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Joseph Collins: My name is Joseph Collins.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
JC: I was in the US Army from 1989 to ’93.
RH: OK. What was your rank when you got out?
JC: Specialist, E4.
RH: What was your MOS?
JC: I had two MOSes. I went in as a 19K [pronounced nineteen kilo] which is a tanker. While I was in they found out I knew about computers so I became a 71L [pronounced seventy-one lima] while we were in garrison and then during field exercises I was a 19K.
RH: What was your unit?
JC: The last unit, I’m assuming. I was in Fourth Battalion, Thirty Fourth Armored Regiment which was a part of the Eighth Infantry Division stationed in Mainz, Germany.
RH: Is that the battalion you deployed to Desert Storm with?
JC: Yes. That was my deployed battalion. We were actually attached. Once we got deployed we were then attached to the 3rd ACR.
RH: Perfect. What motivated you to join the military?
JC: I would say it would be the desire to get out of the house. During high school I had no ambition to go to college so I was like, “What am I going to do?” At the time in high school, my mom passed away at an early age and I was actually being raised by my sister. I knew that once I graduated I was not going to continue living with my sister so I had to do something to get money and I really wanted to travel anyhow. My brother joined the Army a year before me and I just stuck with his recruiter and joined as well.
RH: Good to go. Why did you pick the MOS that you did?
JC: [laughs] It was after my brother joined infantry and he wanted to be Airborne so mostly influenced by my brother. But after looking at everything that the Army had to offer the thing that hit me, the most exciting thing, was to be able to drive a tank. That just, I don’t know. I felt it. The funny thing is that years later after I got out, talking with my sisters – I never knew my father, he died when I was one year old and I didn’t know anything about him growing up – I found out that my dad was also a tank driver in the Army. I don’t know if that was just in me to do because of him. I don’t know. But I feel like it was and it was a good connection.
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
JC: [laughs] Mixed feelings there. Mostly good, very positive, because my oldest brother was in the Marines. My sister was in the Navy and my next oldest brother also joined the Army and I was in the Army so the four out of six of us were in the military. So I think it was mostly accepted.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Where did you go to boot camp?
JC: Boot camp was at Fort Knox, Kentucky in the cold, in the winter. It can be really cold there.
RH: What was boot camp like?
JC: Boot camp was kind of grueling. It was hard but fair. I never got in trouble. I never was one of those guys that messed up all the time and got yelled at. I always saw the Drill Sergeants yelling at somebody but I never got yelled at. You just do what you’re supposed to do and don’t be a dumb ass and you’re fine. It was a long three months or so with no break – no family to see you or anything. But it was an experience.
RH: What was your follow-up training like?
JC: Follow-up training?
RH: After boot camp, what was tanker training like?
JC: That was all combined. That’s why there was no break. Normally it’s eight weeks or six weeks and six weeks or something but ours was all combined into one so it was three months straight of boot camp and then AIT – Advanced Individual Training. It flowed into that and then it was very progressive. You earned stripes on your arm for each stage that you progressed to. Each week you get another stripe and then you always felt like you were a sophomore, junior and a senior. So it felt like you were progressing and it went really quick.
RH: Where were you stationed when you deployed?
JC: After basic training and AIT I was stationed, my first station was in Mainz, Germany. From there we were deployed to Iraq – Saudi Arabia I should say. Sorry.
RH: What do you remember most about Mainz?
JC: Mainz, Germany was beautiful. The river, the city, just going downtown shopping – it was that eclectic German feel. It was really nice. What I remember most is being on my own and being in the city all by myself. That felt good and liberating. [laughs] I felt like an adult at eighteen.
RH: Alright. What were the dates of your deployment to Iraq?
JC: I think it was either Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. I think it was New Year’s Day. Yeah, New Year’s Day 1990 and we got back in the end of May so it was just about six months.
RH: Alright. What was the mission of your unit?
JC: Well, I don’t know if they even set a specific mission. Yes, they did actually. I remember the orders now. The mission was to go and protect a border between Basra and Kuwait. There was a border up there and we were supposed to protect that border from people coming across. We were just stuck there for at least two months straight and trucks would come by with tons of people in the truck trying to escape, trying to flee Baghdad and come into Kuwait. Hmm. It’s hard to remember some of those things. [laughs]
Just remembering kids driving on the street. We were driving on the street and moving around. We constantly moved around but kids that lost their homes, lost their families and they were looking for food, looking for Americans to help them. We would just bypass them and stick to our orders which was protecting that border there. But I didn’t feel like we were protecting anything. I felt like we were just wasting time. Nothing was happening. I guess I should back up because that was the mission after the ground war started. So I should have backed up. Sorry. The mission was to – we were flanking around Kuwait, not going straight through. We were going around and I remember driving several hundred miles. We would drive for days, I think it was six days straight, until the ground war started. Then when that ground war, the hundred hour war, started on February 28th or 29th I think, then that’s when the actual battles began. We were fighting the Republican Guard and just shooting and firing at them without even being able to see them with our naked eye. We were seeing them through the scopes but me as a driver, I don’t get that scope. It’s the gunner and the commander that see them a mile away and they’re firing. I’m just the driver so I’m just going where they tell me to go.
RH: Perfect. We’re totally going to get there. Let me just back up real quick. It was New Year’s Day of 1991 to May of 1991, correct? Or was it 1990?
JC: [laughs] Now I get mixed up on the dates. What did I say?
RH: Because it was New Year’s of 1991. Twenty-five years ago so ’91, February.
JC: I graduated in ’89, went in in August. Yes! ’91 because I spent almost a year in Germany before getting deployed. Yes, yes, yes.
RH: Perfect. What was the lead up to the war like? In Germany before you deployed, what was the lead up like?
JC: When we were notified of going?
JC: I think we were notified in November that we were going. We just got a letter and our commander said we were going and to tell your families. He gave us plenty of time so that people who had families there, they had time to wrap up with their families. The single guys that lived in the barracks, weeks before our actual deployment we packed up everything. It was like we were putting everything we had in a box and put it in storage. Just in case we weren’t going to return, all of our stuff was already packed to ship home. That’s what we all felt. It was kind of surreal like, “Wow. Our barracks won’t be here when we get back.” For some reason, it’s what we were thinking. Everything went in a giant crate and they took it and it felt really, really strange.
People were getting scared with all these things. Some guys were trying to get out of it. We heard all kinds of reasons why they couldn’t go. They wouldn’t allow any vacations or anything so people were trying to create all kinds of reasons why they had to go back home stateside but I don’t remember anybody actually getting approved. Yeah, that kind of thing.
RH: What was the media reaction like at the time?
JC: What was the media? We didn’t get much American media because we were in Germany. I couldn’t understand enough German so I only knew what was on the post there. Do you mean the media reaction right there in Germany?
RH: I guess in Germany but if you weren’t in the States then you wouldn’t have seen the reaction in the States.
JC: No, but I know my sister recorded every hour of CNN during the war. I came home to boxes of CNN tapes and I never watched it. [RH laughs]
RH: What was it like the day and night before you deployed?
JC: I don’t think we slept. Just the anticipation and anxiety of not knowing what’s happening. It was all this time, all this preparation leading up to it of getting our personal goods stored away, getting the tanks ready. The tanks shipped out a month before we left because they had to go on a boat and it took a month to get there. So it was just a lot of anxiety and angst and not knowing what was going to happen.
RH: Did you fly in?
JC: Yeah. We flew in on a C-130.
RH: Where did you land?
JC: It was a straight flight from Wiesbaden Air Base in Germany to the capital city of Saudi Arabia. Gosh…
JC: Riyadh. Yes. So we landed there in the middle of the night and they’re telling us, when they opened the back gate and told us to get off it was one by one, “Run to the bus and not close together. Spread out.” We were pooping our pants. We didn’t know if we were going to be under attack, if they knew we were there, how close the enemy was or anything. Absolutely no information. Just run over there to the bus and get on the bus with your two rucksacks and your two bags in your arm. We were carrying everything – your weapon and your gas mask and everything. So that was pretty scary. Then you get on a bus that’s made for Arab people that are much smaller than us and it was so cramped for another four hour bus ride.
RH: Alright. What was the situation in Saudi Arabia like?
JC: The situation. Well, we went to the port of Dammam. That was on the coast where the ship was going to come in. We set up this big tent city. So what was the situation in Saudi Arabia’s city or Saudi Arabia?
RH: Well, I mean, did you interact with the Saudis at all?
JC: Absolutely not. No. The only interaction with locals that we ever had was after we got to the camp. Like I said it took a month for the tanks to get in by boat so we had a month of living in these big tents and the food was provided by the locals. They provided all of the catering for all the meals which was nice but I don’t remember ever talking to any of them or them every trying to talk to us. It was just serving food and that’s it. So as far as in town, I never got to see that. But I remember the bus ride passing cars, seeing Saudis in the car and the women in the back because they’re not allowed to ride in the front. It was just a whole other experience. I never experienced anything like that. I’m not sure if that was their culture was it part of the war? I didn’t know but later I found out it was their culture.
RH: Alright. Good to go. When you arrived, how long were you in Saudi Arabia for?
JC: Most of the time. Probably four and a half months until the middle of April to end of May when we left. That was all on the border. Basra is between Iraq and Kuwait? Yeah, Kuwait. So we were in Basra for about two months and the rest was in Saudi Arabia. Just a lot of waiting – hurry up and wait. Going one day traveling ten miles and then spending five days there then moving another five miles and waiting six days. It was just always constantly moving camp from one spot to the other and not being told anything other than we’re moving and not knowing why. But occasionally we were coming across IEDs or something that was previously there – other Iraqi camps that they’ve abandoned. I guess we were making progress. The tanks in front of us may have been making all the progress paving the way while my unit came up from the rear.
RH: OK. In Saudi Arabia if I’m not mistaken, that was the Desert Shield portion of it, correct?
RH: So that was these maneuvers that you’re talking about?
JC: Yes. I guess they were maneuvers. They didn’t tell us they were maneuvers but they were constantly moving us.
RH: What was the actual transition to Desert Storm like?
JC: Desert Storm happened with the hundred hour war. That’s when it turned warlike and it was actual ground fighting. That’s when we knew it was real and we knew it was real when we came across our first firefight.
RH: So let’s start, if you could, at the beginning of the hundred hour war. Could you walk through what happened?
JC: It wasn’t like we knew that it was going to happen. We were just driving – moving – doing these maneuvers. Of course intelligence tells the unit that the suspected troops are at these coordinates. And then as we were approaching these coordinates, our tanks can see a mile ahead of us. The naked eye couldn’t see anything but through the scopes you can see a lot more with heat sensors and whatnot. So when we first encountered actual Republican Guard troops, they weren’t visible to the naked eye. And I should tell you this, I drove for the Battalion Commander – the Lieutenant Colonel. So that explains a lot why I was in the back. The Lieutenant Commander is commanding forty-five, forty-four tanks in front of him. That was part of that reason.
I remember them coming over the radio, “Enemy ahead. Open fire,” and the tanks firing. This was like at dusk. I remember it being dusk – the sun just barely going down. And then after three hours of that – just staying stationary because they were dug in and shooting for three hours – we would pause. There would be great lengths of pause in-between movements because if they didn’t see any movement, they would have to let the fires die down and the smoke die down so that they could see if anything was moving in order to shoot it. So we got out of the tank, grabbed our MREs, and sat on the top of the tank like, “Wow. They’re not firing back at us. This is too easy. What’s going on?” We just ate like normal on top of the tank and waited for the next order to come down to tell us to move or what was happening.
RH: Alright. Good to go. You pushed into Iraq from Saudi Arabia?
RH: OK. What was it like actually pushing into Iraq?
JC: Visually you can tell that you’re in a different place because you cross this river bed – dried up river bed, I forget the name of the river that it was – and then the sand turns darker. It’s like an obvious point of when you know you’re in a different area. So that was the telltale sign that we were in Iraq now. Smoky. Getting closer you could tell that you were closer to the oil fires. It was soot falling down on you all the time and just very smoky, cloudy, dark. And even during the day, midday, it would be very dark. Sometimes there’d be wind storms – dust devils. It was getting eerie when we got close. The closer we got, the eerier it got.
RH: Did you see any of the oil fires and, if so, how close did you get to them?
JC: Yes. We were about, I’d say, a mile from them. During the war we were about a mile. After the war, we went right up to them. But you see them. At night you sleep in your sleeping bag on top of the tank and in the morning you wake up and you’re completely black. [laughs] It was gross.
RH: Are there any parts of Iraq that were particularly memorable?
JC: Yes. They called it the Highway to Hell. That was on the news and there were some famous photographs of this highway that was bombed but much of it was lots of civilian vehicles. We had to drive on that road and we drove through these cars and busses that were just totally decimated and torn up like tuna cans – clothes strewn everywhere. Fortunately any bodies that may have been there were removed prior to us going through but it was still very eerie driving through this dozens, hundreds of cars and busses and trucks just all on top of each other, all burnt up and black. That was probably the most memorable part of it.
RH: If I remember it right, was it Highway 8, I believe it was? It went from Baghdad to – I don’t know if it was Basra or south to one of the cities.
JC: Yes. I’m not one hundred percent sure but it was very famous. It was very photographed in the papers.
RH: What was the enemy like?
JC: Unprepared. They looked very sloppy, unprepared, scared themselves like they were just put there – told to be there and definitely not wanting to be there and not prepared to be there. They were not prepared for the force that we instilled upon them. It was just massive force by the Americans. They had no chance. It was obvious after a couple of hours of fighting that they had no chance. Like I said, after three or four hours my nerves just totally subsided. I was like, “This is a piece of cake. This is getting fun now.” We would drive, get into another battle and keep moving and never really hear of any fire against us, any casualties on our side. Except one but maybe we’ll get into if you get to that point. I don’t know if you have a question on it.
RH: Alright. So you were a driver. During this whole time you were driving and you had a tank commander and a machine gunner?
JC: A tank commander, a gunner and a loader. Those three stay in the hull together. They can see and touch each other and as the driver, I’m in the front in my own little compartment. I can’t see or touch them.
RH: What model tank was it?
JC: It was an M1A1.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did you interact with any of the Iraqi civilians?
JC: None other than asking for food. Before it all even started when we were still in the port, we had the food vendors and the catering by local civilians. But other than that, not a lick. Nothing.
RH: Aside from what you talked about, what were some of the other notable events that occurred during the hundred hour war?
JC: The most notable event was – I think it was the second battle that we were in. I was in the Lieutenant Commander’s tank and then the Major’s tank was involved in what I and many other people consider cover-up friendly fire. It was pretty interesting and I have this all on audio tape. I spliced my tape recorder into our intercom system and recorded all the chatter because I knew my commander was going to get intel from even higher. So we’re hearing this through our CBC helmets. I’m hearing some crazy stuff coming across the radio about reports of friendly fire and my commander asking every single tank, “What did you do? What did you hear? What did you see? Who was it? What happened?” And it turns out that it was the Major’s tank whose gunner just got trigger happy or slipped. They denied it but it turned out that it was their tank that fired upon a Bradley. I know at least there were injuries. I don’t know about deaths but there were definitely several injuries and it was pretty scary because it was a lot of yelling, a lot of screaming and the gunner of the Major’s tank not saying anything. That’s what I remember.
RH: Earlier you talked about a casualty. Was that the incident?
RH: OK. Any other incidents?
JC: I would say the one when we were at the border. We were at the border for three or four weeks straight at this one place and these two kids, they were brothers. They were probably five and seven. Haydar and Ahmed. I still remember their names because they would come see us every day. We would give them an MRE or a toothbrush or tic tacs or anything that was American and they ate it up. They were so cute and so excited. And they were living about a hundred yards away in a pup tent with their mother because his dad – he said we killed his dad because his dad was forced to fight and was killed. They were just refugees and had nowhere to go. That was something to look forward to, to see these kids still smiling and playing out in the sand every day.
RH: Nice. Good to go. What do you remember most about the soldiers that you served with?
JC: That many of them were assholes. [RH laughs] Some of them were real jerks. Man, I don’t know. Just overly gung ho about stuff. It’s hard to remember back that far, you know, [laughs] any specifics about them. But some of them I didn’t like and they didn’t like me. We were twenty years old so I guess that’s to be expected.
RH: Any in particular that stick out?
JC: Yeah. The Major’s driver. [RH laughs] He was just always an ass to me personally. He was also my roommate back at the barracks for some time. I just never liked him, he never liked me. Out there getting sick is easy out there in the desert with the lack of facilities. I got sick once and instead of being supportive, he would be derogatory all the time and tell me that it was my fault that I got sick or whatever. Just never trustworthy. I have to depend on these guys for my life too but they’re being jerks and I don’t know if I would actually truly save their lives if the moment came that I could.
RH: How was the Lieutenant Colonel?
JC: He was such a hard ass. He was a hard ass. I don’t think anybody really, truly liked him. He stole my cigarettes. [RH laughs] I had bought cigarettes from the PX to take with me before we left post. I packed them in my bag – I think four cartons – knowing that guys were going to run out of cigarettes and I would make money selling a dollar a cigarette or whatever. Until their families sent them cigarettes or something, they would be buying these cigarettes from me. So he caught wind of this and he forced me to give him everything I had left. He scared me into giving him my carton of cigarettes. Ahh! I was so pissed. [RH laughs]
He was a hard ass. I never felt like he would protect anyone. He would always protect himself first. There was another incident that happened where I was doing exactly as he wanted. As a driver all you have to do is listen: left, right, left, right, slow down, speed up. It’s a mindless position but you also have to watch out for dangers. In the open desert there’s nothing but sand. He told me very specifically, “Don’t move. Don’t go left or right. Go straight. Don’t stop, don’t slow down, don’t speed up. Just go straight.” So I’m going straight and I see something in the distance. I see something black on the ground – maybe a rock or whatever, a big rock or boulder or something. But all I know is he told me to go straight so I’m assuming he sees the same thing I’m seeing because we’re headed right for it. He didn’t tell me to move and we ran it over.
RH: What was it exactly? A rock?
JS: No. It wasn’t anything dangerous but all of a sudden we have to stop after that because the Captain’s Humvee comes flying up beside us, tells them to stop and they got out and it was a pair of night vision goggles in the case – it’s like a small suitcase. The Captain comes running up to me and yelling at me like I’m an idiot. My commander is not saying a single thing but my gunner, Sergeant Plato, he and I were close. He was cool. He spoke up for me and yelled back. I was like, “Whoa! That’s awesome.” Not even my commander would do that but he would do it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let me ask you this. What was the most challenging period of the deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?
JC: The end.
RH: Why is that?
JC: Because they kept saying we’re going to go home and they said that for the entire month of May. We had dates to leave but that would come and go. So just not knowing when we would get to go home was really stressful. Then we would get moved from the desert to an airstrip where we would sleep in an empty hangar for, I think, a couple of weeks. We were just waiting for a plane to come in and take us home. Every time a plane would come in, someone else would go home but not us. You’re just waiting and you’re doing absolutely nothing the whole day, just not knowing when you’re going home. So that was probably the most stressful, frustrating time.
RH: I’m going to back up just a little bit. At the end of the hundred hours, what was the very end of that like? Was it significant at all or did it just happen?
JC: No. We got informed. We were just told that they were talking – that’s right. There was that general that was talking about the end of the war or some peace treaty or a ceasefire. They were talking about a ceasefire and then we were waiting for that to happen. So we had a little bit of advance notice and then he said, “Yup. It’s over. We’re done.” And “he” is the First Sergeant of our unit because we’d still meet every day in formation to give out news and that was one of the things he said. He goes, “Yup. It just came down. A ceasefire is in effect. We’re just going to ride and keep our eyes peeled but now we’re riding south.”
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of deploying?
JC: Non-combat? Keeping sane. Keeping busy. We’re waiting for mail. Eventually mail did come so that was pretty awesome. But just keeping sane and getting along with everyone. There were some people that were frustrated. They wanted to go home and you’d have to console them sometimes. [laughs] That’s what I mean about some of them being babies.
RH: So this is not on my list but it’s one I just thought of. This might be a dumb question but how hot does it get inside a tank in the desert?
JC: It can raise the temperature fifteen to twenty degrees. If it’s a hundred degrees outside, it’s a hundred and fifteen, a hundred and twenty inside. If it’s stopped, it’s hotter. If you’re moving there’s air flow but it’s hot. Not only is the air hot, we have to wear the heavy MOPP gear – the chemical agent protective uniform. That makes it even hotter. Then you have the helmet on all the time while you’re in the tank so that’s very hot. And the winters could even be colder inside because the metal gets so cold that it just retains the cold. At night in the desert it is cold. During the day the variance is like eighty degrees. It could be a hundred and ten during the day and down to fifty at night which is crazy.
RH: On the way back you said that you stayed near some of the burning oil wells. Did you assist in putting them out? What was going on around them?
JC: No. They have engineers to do that, engineer groups that put them out or they just burned out themselves. But we went near them. We went by them and by them are camps – the Iraqi camps where they stayed. We would look at their living conditions that they were in, in their bunkers and whatnot, and we got to visit some of these bunkers where they were dug in and living for months. It was horrible. It was so gross. It seemed so third world to me. We have ways of taking care of business and standards of life even when we’re in the field and they just do everything in one place. It’s not pretty. [both laugh]
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before I move onto post-deployment and coming home, is there anything else that’s significant about the deployment that we left out?
JC: Man, there’s always a story. Personal stories or Army stories?
RH: Whatever you think is significant that you want to add to the record.
JC: Well, there’s one case of drama that happened that I kind of regret. I do regret being involved in that but I said my peace with the guy. There was this other guy in our group who, when we were back in the barracks before just living in the barracks, he had let me use his AT&T calling card to call back home. My phone bill home could be seven, eight hundred dollars a month back then calling family and exes. [laughs] But out in the desert you think you’re not coming back so what does it matter how much the phone bill is? When we all were leaving we thought, “Well, we’re not coming back. We’re putting our stuff in storage. They’re preparing for us not to come back,” so we thought we’re not coming back. Anything could happen.
So I made a dumb decision when we got the chance to use a payphone when we were there. I used this guy’s calling card and made my call back home with his calling card thinking, “We’re going to be dead by the time he gets the bill. What’s it matter?” So the thing is, he got the bill. [laughs] We still got mail out there so he got the bill and something in me just made me deny that it was me. And I don’t know why but that was my first reaction and response was, “It wasn’t me.” And for some stupid reason, after many, many attempts from many people to see if it was me, I still denied it. I was a dumb twenty year-old. That was the dumbest thing.
So this other Sergeant told me that he will fix this if I will just tell him the truth and I still lied. What it came down to was where when I had the opportunity to go talk to this guy myself, I came clean with him but I didn’t want to come clean with all these Sergeants drilling down my neck. I would go to him and I did and then I thought the way to fix it is to go tell the First Sergeant and just come clean. So I did and, well, it was good but it still made this other Sergeant who said he was going to protect me look really bad because he tried to protect me and he stuck his neck out for me but I was still lying at that point but then I came clean. So I got KP duty for a long time and shit burning detail [laughs] where you’ve got to stir the pot and light it on fire and all that. KP duty in the desert is not easy because you don’t really have running water. You’ve got to use what they’ve got. Then that’s when I got really looked down upon a lot. It wasn’t great. The ending was really nice for me because I felt like I didn’t have to face these guys anymore.
RH: Alright. Any others?
JC: I don’t think so. That was burning a hole in me.
RH: [laughs] Hopefully he reads it one day. Actually, how did the guy react?
JC: He was OK just like I knew he would be. He was like, “OK man. Just pay me.” I was like, “No problem.” And I apologized but his reaction was he told his Sergeant first and didn’t come to me, I guess, because he didn’t know who it was.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experience and, specifically, what was it like coming back home? The flight and then immediately arriving home.
JC: The flight home was cool. When we knew that we were coming home, that’s funny, that’s when we got the desert BDUs. The whole time we were there we had the green [RH laughs] and then, while we were in the hangar waiting to come home, we got the desert BDUs. Too late but whatever. It was nice to have clean clothes.
We were on a commercial airliner this time that flew and stopped in Italy. We were on this ginormous plane. It was the double-decker – I don’t know the number. It was mostly empty and it was just for us so everyone spread out and just got to sit anywhere. It was quite a comfortable ride home.
So I met this flight attendant. They had regular flight attendants on the flight – I mean real, not regular – it wasn’t a military flight. It was a regular flight. I met this flight attendant who was from Florida as I’m from Florida and so we hit it off. He showed me, he put me in the elevator to go down below to the galley so I got to see what it’s like down below the deck there. There was this huge window that’s not looking straight down and not looking straight out but kind of in the middle. You can step over and look at this window and that’s what I remember best about that plane, getting to go down there and see that.
We stopped in Italy and then we got home. We got on a bus and then the drive into the barracks was depressing because all the single guys that live in the barracks don’t have any family there to greet them yet all the married guys have their family there and they are going to be greeted when they get off that bus. It was kind of a bummer. It really was. I was kind of hoping that, maybe if I lived in the States at that point, we would come home and there would be family waiting for us but yeah. It was kind of a nonchalant, get off the bus and your buddy is married. He’s going to hug his wife. It is what it is. The single guys just got together and drank some champagne. We were home. [laughs]
RH: Alright. Good to go. How soon after that were you able to come back and visit the States?
JC: We got back the end of May, June and then I was back home in September.
RH: After you got back to the States, how did civilians and the public react?
JC: Well, when I did get home I did have my family at the airport waiting. It was six months later but I was home. My family was there and greeted me at the airport. That was great. I honestly can’t say that I experienced any negative reaction from anyone in my neighborhood or in my town. Just a welcoming home from my family and friends. I never had any adverse comments towards me.
RH: This is back in Florida, correct?
JC: Yes. Florida.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did any of the soldiers around you change afterwards and, if so, how?
JC: When we got back to the barracks, you mean?
RH: Yes. After deployment.
JC: When we go back to the barracks did any of them change? You know, in some respects it kind of felt like things never changed. Things didn’t change at all because we got our stuff, we went back to our rooms and we started back up our daily routine again. But for me personally, another incident occurred in the barracks there that led to even more misunderstanding towards me or distrust towards me. Some of my roommates at the time went – they always felt that I was hiding something from them which I was so they decided to go in my locked drawers and what they found could have gotten me in pretty big trouble. I had pictures of me and my boyfriend at the time. They didn’t like that. [laughs] But even though they went in my locked drawers and invaded my privacy, they couldn’t really say how they knew but they just still acted really bad towards me. They started spreading rumors and whatnot. There were intimidating factors and whatnot so I stayed away from them as much as possible. So my last several months there were pretty rough and that Sergeant that stuck his neck out for me, he wouldn’t have anything to do with me. He had a lot of influence. He was high up there. I was the last person in my unit to get, not ETS. What is it called when you change duty stations?
JC: PCS. Yeah. I was the last person to get assigned at the unit. Everyone else left before me and they made me stay the longest, until the end of September or whatever it was. So I was like, “Whatever. Longer time in Germany.” I tried to make the best of it. More time in Germany for me and that’s fine because I enjoyed the travel that I did every other weekend going on a bus tour to some country. So I feel like they missed out. [laughs] That was me trying to avoid them for the last six months there.
RH: Where did you go after Mainz?
JC: I went home on PCS and I had a couple of weeks at home with my family and then I got reassigned to Fort Bliss, Texas – another tank unit there. That was scary in itself because out of all the places that people say that they would take in the States, Fort Bliss was on the bottom of the list. [both laugh] It’s just all desert and hot and just not a good station.
RH: During that period did you deploy at all or was that it and then you got out?
JC: That was it. Yeah.
RH: OK. Good to go. So moving onto civilian life a little bit, how has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?
JC: Oh God. I think I’ve carried a lot of things that I learned in the military over into civilian life. Just my discipline, my organizational habits, I thank the Army for that. It gave me structure. It gave me discipline. What was the other part of the question?
RH: That’s it. How has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?
JC: Yeah, pretty much.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What were some of the challenges that you faced after you got out of the military?
JC: I solved something temporarily for four years by getting out of my sister’s house but when I came back I was still in my sister’s house. [RH laughs] So it didn’t solve anything. The challenge was, what am I going to do? I got the GI Bill, the money from the GI Bill, and I’m going to definitely go to school now. I think I was in my sister’s house for maybe six months before I got my own place and just looked for work and went to school. So that was my biggest challenge, to get back out of her house again. It took six months but I did it.
RH: Good to go. Have you joined any veterans-related organizations?
JC: I’d have to say no, other than going to the VA on a regular basis.
RH: Do you still communicate with anyone from your unit?
JC: From my unit? No. Not from my deployed unit but my unit in Fort Bliss, I did communicate for maybe a couple of years after I got out of the Army with a friend in Fort Bliss, Texas but after a few years it just kind of faded. He was in California. I was in Florida.
RH: Good to go. So I have a couple of spiritual questions for you. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
JC: I think at the time it probably did. That pastor, the priest comes – what is he?
RH: The Chaplain.
JC: The Chaplain. [laughs] The Chaplain comes and gives his lecture and everything and hands you the Bible. I read it. I read the rapture and scriptures and everything – Armageddon or whatever. For a while I was a believer. There are so many coincidences in the Bible that were occurring at the moment that I was like, “OK. I could be a believer.” But I’m not a religious person. It didn’t turn me religious. I’m still not a super believer. No.
RH: Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
JC: Affected my perception of life and death? Wow. I guess. Hmm. I can’t think of a way. I think it taught me to take advantage of opportunities, live life to its fullest and just take advantage of opportunities that you have because you never know when you’re going to get to travel again or do things. That’s the way I’ve pretty much lived the whole rest of my life is opportunity after opportunity. Just take advantage of things. Don’t hide under a rock.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I’ve got a couple of questions about 9/11 and post-9/11. Where were you on September 11th?
JC: I was living in Salt Lake City, Utah, unemployed at my desk at home.
RH: What do you remember about that day?
JC: Watching the Today show. Calling my best friend in California or him calling me and telling me to turn on the TV – I was already watching – and just sitting there with him in awe. I can’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Yeah.
RH: How did you feel when the US went back to Iraq in 2003?
JC: The reasons for going back maybe I don’t fully agree with or I don’t subscribe to the reasons but my initial reaction was – because that was ten years later – my thing was, “Oh my gosh. I should be going back.” It was a weird feeling. “Wait a minute, am I old enough? Can I go back? Do they need me? Am I going to be able to drive a tank again?” For months I was really investigating what it would take to reenlist but it just got too difficult and I didn’t do it. There were too many other factors involved of course but I had that feeling of I should be there. I should be there. My unit or a unit needs me. So it was weird.
RH: Interesting. Did you foresee us going back in at any point after Desert Storm?
JC: I think yes. Not getting Saddam the first time meant that for sure we’d be back. After months turning into years there and we’re not fully out of Iraq, I just knew something. Yeah. I had that feeling that we were definitely going back, just not knowing when.
RH: How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
JC: [sighs] How do I feel about it? I think it’s crazy. We’re never going to get rid of this terrorism thing that is against the United States or against what we stand for. It’s just always going to happen. I just think it’s inevitable. If it’s not ISIS, it’s somebody else. Some other group is going to form to finish what they feel needs to be done against mostly us.
RH: Now that we are a few years out, how do you feel about Desert Storm?
JC: A few years? [both laugh] I feel old. I feel like it was a waste of time. That’s what I feel like it was. But as far as my personal growth experience, I think I guess it was cool that I got to be a part of it. I was there and participated but I think it was pointless. We didn’t really resolve anything.
RH: I’m going to switch it up a little bit. What is the happiest memory of the entire time you served? This could be your entire enlistment.
JC: Oh gosh. We can pick different periods, too. The happiest time? [laughs] At both stations?
JC: I would say in Germany it was all the travel that I did before and after deployment. I took advantage of every opportunity to travel so I think I was happiest when I got to go to these countries and see the world. That’s when I was happiest.
RH: What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
JC: I miss the mess hall. [both laugh] I miss just walking in, grabbing a plate, getting food and walking out. That was such a nice convenience.
I miss the structure. I definitely feel like it was structured so well. You knew exactly what you were doing, what time you were getting up, what you were wearing. You knew what you were wearing. You didn’t have to worry about your clothes. [RH laughs] Structure means less stress for me. If there’s structure, there’s no stress and no worries.
RH: It’s funny that you say that because one of my next questions is going to be, what is the best chow hall the entire time you were in?
JC: At Fort Bliss we had a brand new mess hall open up and it was so modern at the time. I thought the food was good. I’m sorry. [RH laughs] I’m not a food hog or whatever or connoisseur but I thought it was good. It was modern. It had TVs. It had comfortable benches and chairs. It was great.
RH: Good to go. What was your favorite MRE?
JC: Was it mac and cheese? No, no, no. Was it the chili? Ah!
RH: This was before my time so I don’t know. [laughs]
JC: I could tell you the worst. It was that damned Chinese whatever it was. The ham and eggs were pretty good. I miss heating them up on the back of the engine of the tank. I let the engine heat them up if we don’t have water.
RH: That’s cool. Alright. What are some of the funny stories that you have?
JC: At every place we stopped during our movements at Desert Storm, we’d move from place to place and every time we stopped we would build a port-o-potty of our own which could have been anything. We had just a wall of tarp paper around a wall and dug a hole with a box. Some people got pretty creative with their designs of who could have the prettiest or coolest port-o-potty. Those times were fun, building those. And it’s not specifically the war time?
JC: The funnest or funniest?
JC: Gosh. I have to prepare for these things. Funniest story. When you’re new at Fort Bliss, being new the first time there, the people that have been there a while like to play tricks on the newcomers. So you go out in the desert in El Paso, Texas there and everything’s in Spanish. All these signs and whatnot are in Spanish because we are right on the border with Mexico there. The experienced people that had been there a while would tell the new people, “See that sign? There’s peligros out here. Don’t get off the tank [RH laughs] because they’ll chew you up.” And we made people believe that a peligro was this crazy animal that would come and kill you and it just meant danger or warning or whatever. That’s how you learn Spanish real quick. It was fun doing that to new people that came on board.
RH: Cool. Good to go. Last couple of questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have had about Desert Storm?
JC: Misconceptions about Desert Storm? That we were there – well, that’s an obvious one – that we were there to discover weapons of mass destruction in any of Saddam’s holds or caches that he had there. So that was one I think that’s one that we all can agree on. A misconception was that maybe we didn’t have showers when, in fact, we would create these things and find ways to take showers. We weren’t completely without comforts – some comforts – like makeshift showers in the middle of the desert. We found opportunities to do that.
Another misconception is that it’s nothing but camping or wartime or sitting around a bonfire or something when, in fact, there are many times when people got to go on R&R trips to Dubai or other areas. I was jealous because I was driving for the Lieutenant Commander. He wouldn’t allow his crew to go on these things because, number one, favoritism. He didn’t want anyone to think that he was favoring his own crew and if he needed to go somewhere, he wanted his driver right there. So I didn’t get to experience those fun things. In fact, I got to sit in a Cobra helicopter and the pilot was going to take me for a ride but, two seconds after I sat down, my Commander said, “Come on, Collins. We’re leaving.” I was so pissed. [RH laughs] You can’t give me ten minutes to get a ride in a helicopter? So that sucked.
I guess the misconception that there aren’t fun times. There are, definitely.
RH: Alright. If you could communicate something to young soldiers who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
JC: [laughs] Oh, God. I don’t know if I want to answer that. Communicate something? Advice? It’s not the answer. You don’t have to do it. Go for the education, go for the school, go for any reason other than war. Go to serve your country in some way but I wouldn’t recommend a combat position. It’s not necessary.
RH: Let me ask you a question because you brought it up. President Obama a couple of years ago repealed the prohibition on being gay in the military. Do you think if that had been allowed while you were in, your experience would have been different?
JC: Oh yes. In fact, I was in with Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Right as that started I was in Fort Bliss, maybe six months before I was getting out. Five months before the end of my four years, I had an investigation brought against me for being gay. But my Captain and people there absolutely loved me and I did great work. I worked in an office as the computer guy or whatever and I worked really closely with a lot of officers and high up NCOs. So I had this investigation against me and my Captain, he didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to do anything. He was having to press to investigate further but he knew he couldn’t ask me and I didn’t have to tell him anything. But they got a pretty good amount of evidence that he could press the article – I forgot what it was – Article 15 or what it was for being gay. He told me to my face, he said, “You know what? You’re getting out in a couple of months. Your ETS is in a couple of months. If you don’t pursue reenlistment, I will stall this paperwork. You can get out with an honorable discharge and we don’t have to do this.” But if I wanted to reenlist, he would have to pursue the discharge.
So I was like, “Dang.” I was ready to reenlist. I was like, “I could make a career.” In Fort Bliss, I ran the board interviews. To become a Sergeant, you had to go in front of a board and so I ran those sessions providing all the the First Sergeants with the promotional – Ah! I forget what it’s called – what they needed to do to promote the Specialists going to Sergeant. I knew what I needed to do and I was all ready and I just realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. So that was a bummer. If that wasn’t a factor, I could have been in for a long time because I really enjoyed the structure part of it and being squared away as they say. [laughs]
RH: Alright. Before I ask my last question, is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
JC: I don’t know. I don’t know what I don’t know. [RH laughs] We could talk all night if you want to.
RH: Alright. My last question, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your entire service?
JC: Oh man. You know, just completing the four years honorably and with pride, with some pride, and knowing that that would have made my parents proud. That definitely made me feel good. My dad was, my brothers were, my sister was in the services so, yeah. That and the accomplishment of traveling the world at twenty years old was just amazing for me. So I’m proud of that.
RH: Alright. Anything else before we wrap it up?
JC: Man. I don’t know. I wish you’d give me a hint at what you wanted to know. [laughs]
RH: I always ask the last question in case there’s anything that I didn’t cover that people want to drop in.
JC: I don’t think we mentioned about the VA system here. Is that part of it?
RH: Sure. I didn’t ask much about it but go ahead and say something.
JC: And Desert Storm Syndrome.
RH: I didn’t ask about that.
JC: I would love to talk about that.
RH: Please, go ahead.
JC: After getting back from Desert Storm, after ETS’ing, I’m hearing in the news about Desert Storm Syndrome at that point and I thought, “Man, I’m just going to go get checked out because I have these things that are unexplainable to me so I’m going to go see if a VA doctor can shed some light on it.” So I signed up for the Desert Storm Syndrome thing and you have to sign up and then go through many different check-ups and interviews with the VA. I went, I think, it was every other month for a while. They check and take all these tests and stuff. So I had some complaints. I really felt like my eyesight was diminished quickly after getting out of the Army. Hair loss was real quick after getting out. I had achy bones. I couldn’t explain why they were so achy in these places and I had a slight rash that didn’t go away for a long time – like a year. That was scary but it eventually went away. So some things that the VA, after three years of going to the VA taking these exams and being examined for three years, they came back with some things that were explainable but some other things they couldn’t explain so they were going to offer me a ten percent disability and I get to continue to be able to use the VA for whatever. I figured, OK. The rash went away at that point by the end of that three years so I was like, “OK. I’m still alive. Maybe that’s acceptable,” so I took the ten percent. I still can’t prove that any of my complaints were associated with it but I did receive a letter from the Army years later that said that my unit was in an area where chemical agents were prevalent – a bunker that was destroyed that contained chemical agents. It’s quite possible that we were exposed to that. So there’s that.
The VA system in general – I’ve gone to the VA ever since for all of my needs from Florida to Texas, Utah, California, Hawaii, Oregon and New York and I really have very little to complain about. Of all these misconceptions about the VA healthcare system is really bad and they make you wait, in the beginning you did have to wait a month for an appointment for some things but that has since changed around. I have no complaints. I really don’t. So that’s a misconception about the VA that I’d like to let people know about. I’ve been to all of those states’ VAs and not an issue. The one in Portland is probably the best I’ve ever been to.
RH: Anything else?
JC: I think that’s good.
RH: Alright. Thank you!