Jeff Collins, a Vietnam Veteran, talks about becoming a Veterans Services Officer, and World War II and Korean vets.
BILL MURPHY: Tell us a little bit about yourself where, you grew up and things like that. Started off.
JEFF COLLINS: I grew up in southwest Ohio. A town called Springfield. Left when I was 15 to play baseball in southern California. Left there when I didn’t make first string at UCLA. Went back to Ohio, my parents’ home. Got drafted immediately, as was the way of things in those days.
I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Through my army testing was shown to have an aptitude for math. I was offered positions at either Fort Ben Harrison in Indiana, or the aviation center at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
So I chose aviation. Went to Fort Rucker. Went through school there, ended up in Vietnam. Again, as was as the want in those days. I was lucky enough to be assigned to a command aviation company, there are only two in Vietnam.
We flew special missions, extractions, VIP’s, star grade officers. And was lucky enough to serve with a lot of the classmates I’d been with and instructors. Didn’t have a lot of success, I was shot down three times. Incurred injuries.
When I came back, I was to go back to Fort Rucker as an instructor at the aviation center at Fort Rucker, Alabama. I got those orders while on medical leave with my parents in Ohio.
I got in my car, an old Plymouth, and drove from Ohio to the Pentagon. I went into Personnel and there was a captain behind the desk. And I had on a neck brace and a back brace and was limping. And he raised his eyes as he looked at me and said, what do you want?
And I said I need to get my orders changed. And he said where you going, and I said Fort Rucker, Alabama. And he smiled and said where would you like to go, because he had been to Fort Rucker. I’m sorry for any Alabama members here. It was not a place to be station if you didn’t have to be.
I was able to get my order’s changed to Washington. A little airfield south of Fort Belvoir, Virginia called Davison Airfield. Which was a strategic airfield for evacuating members of Congress and other high ranking government officials. Similar to what the president has at Andrews Air Force Base, but on a lower level.
And, again, I was stationed with very good pilots, very good people. Stayed there. They really weren’t sure, that is the army, what to do with me because of all my injuries. So they said I could go back to school.
Which I did. Got an Associate’s Degree in Library Science, because in my spare time I was running a library at Fort Belvoir, the Engineering Center Library. But I also had an auto accident, which was not my fault. So I ended up back in Walter Reed for three months and received a medical discharge.
So from that received my disability compensation. And that’s how I ended up being a Veteran Service Officer for Carroll County. Carroll County is the first county in the state of Maryland to have County Service Officers. I was the first. Since then we’ve hired Jim Hillman to be the second. Jim’s a excellent man. A retired army officer. And we’re both dedicated to veterans, since we were both veterans.
I took the position primarily because my wife told me to. And the key to a successful marriage is doing whatever your wife tells you. So she said I would be good at it, having been through the VA a system for almost 45 years. And it’s been both humbling and frustrating, because you’re dealing with the VA.
We’ve had a great amount of success and some not so successful. Because, again, we’re dealing with the VA. But it’s the only reason I would come out of retirement.
BILL MURPHY: What do you think of the VA? I’m also former Air Force, and I also go down to the VA down in Green Street. Do you think things are improving for our veterans that are out there? We have 40,000 veterans here in Carroll County. Do you think it’s improving?
JEFF COLLINS: I would correct you there. We have 14,000 and two.
BILL MURPHY: 14,002. I’m sorry, I misquoted.
JEFF COLLINS: That’s for the census. You know it’s a qualified yes. Every time we find that there is an improvement another problem arises. The recent issue is going away from paper, a paper system. Going to a paperless system. Ideally, that would work, because we’re dealing with computers. And fewer trees cut down and so forth.
But it’s how the process unfolds. Baltimore was chosen because of the issues that the Baltimore region has in successfully managing veterans’ claims and the problems. The serious problems they’ve had in the past.
Initially all of the files were sent to Kentucky to be scanned, because that’s where they wanted them to go. They’re now in Georgia to be scanned. And so there have been issues that have crept up recently with the efficiency of that scanning.
And that’s the reason why Jim Hillman and myself, we get intimately involved in that where we have to refile. We have to track. We work with the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, which is an excellent organization. They provide outstanding support to Jim and myself.
I’m an accredited officer, so I have access to the Veterans Administration computer systems. And I can go in and check the status of any claims. So the answer, like I said, is qualified. I would say at this point it couldn’t have been much worse than it was in the past. 40 years ago when I started it was abysmal.
I go to the Veterans Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, because I’m from Virginia. The Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Hospital. It’s one of the premier hospitals in the country. I couldn’t ask for a better hospital. I spent eight years with the medical faculty at George Washington Hospital.
I would tell people, when they would ask, when I would give talks that I would recommend the Richmond VA Hospital over George Washington, which didn’t give me a lot of fans at GW. It wasn’t a slam at GW at all. It was the quality of what we had with the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Hospital in Richmond to this day. It’s excellent.
I’m a difficult patient, and my primary care handles me very well.
BILL MURPHY: As far as the primary care, is it still a problem? For example, with the VA to get that first appointment. You know, for a new veteran that gets signed up, I think it was like 60 or 65 days.
JEFF COLLINS: Oh, it was over 80 days. Baltimore is 84 days now. It’s still the problem. And the problem right now is one of the things Congress came up with was an ability for veterans who could not get an immediate appointment to be seen at a local doctor’s office.
And I’ll be-political here and say it was a convoluted system. I don’t know anybody that’s been able to use it. Both the VFW and the American Legion have come out with articles in their magazines indicating the same thing. They used a 40-mile radius, as the crow flies, which eliminated most of Carroll County from being able to use it if you couldn’t get into Baltimore.
However, before the veteran could be seen, the doctor had to agree to accept payment from the VA. And the VA had to accept the doctor. It’s a government agency, so by the time all that happened 30 days and long past.
So it was a system that was doomed to failure because it wasn’t capable of succeeding the way it was established. They have altered it a little in that you now can measure the distance by mileage, not by a crow.
So the people in the Union Town qualify and, I’m sorry, Union Bridge qualify and all. But something has to change there. The length of time hasn’t decreased that much. Give you another example down at Hunter Holmes.
I read an article and it was just a one-page article that said the McGuire Hospital was 81 days to get an appointment. I called my primary care, who’s been my doctor for 20 years, and, as, I said, I’m a bad patients. So I said, you know, what the world’s going on down there? Why does it take so long, I need to know.
And he said, that was that one-page article? And I said, yes, it was. And he said it failed to mention certain things. The draw down on the military, the number of members of the military that are being forced out, they’re not getting out for the most part of their own free will. The government says we’re downsizing, you have to leave.
For the Navy, the Marines in Virginia that’s a lot of people. So you’ve got their hospital that they had to go to for their VA physical is the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Hospital Enrichment.
That hospital was given no additional staff. Certainly they didn’t build on to the building, which I’m told is the second largest building in Virginia after the Pentagon. It’s a huge hospital. But the point is they had this influx of individuals getting out of the military, but given absolutely no assistance and taking care of them.
So you would expect them to have issues in trying to get them into the system. So one-page articles usually don’t give you the story you need.
BILL MURPHY: How about as far as the improvement? What do you think would be some good improvements that the veterans administration can make to help our veterans get better quality in medical–
JEFF COLLINS: I jokingly say that the VA has more forms and the IRS. We have issues when we file a claim. Some of my claims are an inch thick because of the paperwork that we attach. They have made some changes there.
Of course, again, on the negative side. They gave us about three weeks notice. Any claims that we had submitted got kicked back because of the particular forms that we have to secure a specific date of claim were considered no longer valid. So we had to resubmit those claims with the new form.
Making it less cumbersome. Veterans who have a need, it’s usually pretty obvious. And I have a plethora of stories of veterans who have an obvious need who are not receiving care.
Now it’s obvious to me, it’s obvious to the veteran getting the information through to the VA that it’s obvious. That could be more difficult. We’ve had a good deal of success in the last few months, primarily because of the fact that Baltimore has had most of their files removed and sent to Georgia to be scanned.
So George is responsible for a lot of that now, temporarily. And, again, when I have issues I go directly to the director the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs. I know you’re Air Force, and I’m still talking to you even though you’re Air Force. He’s Navy. I still talk to him even though he’s Navy. That’s a joke. I help everybody.
But we can get things done that an individual can’t. So it’s as much incumbent upon veterans to work through a service officer as it is the problems that the VA has. And I’ll mention one other thing. A veteran doesn’t have to pay one dime to do what we do.
There are companies out there that will charge you. I have one poor woman that retired, or a widow I should say, whose husband was a World War II officer, who paid $20,000 to do what we do for nothing. There’s no shortcut. Most of these companies advertise that they can get it done much quicker.
They can’t, unless their father runs the VA. They can’t get anything done quicker. You shouldn’t have to pay a dime. It’s not going to go any faster. There are no magic forms. And we’re doing it because we’re dedicated to veterans. We’re not trying to make money.
BILL MURPHY: One thing, that you’re a friend of Mike “Mad Dog” Sater’s [INAUDIBLE].
JEFF COLLINS: Don’t never say that again. Don’t ever say that I’m a friend of Mike [INAUDIBLE].
BILL MURPHY: OK. And, anyway, one of the things that Mike worked on for, it was for you to get your job that you have right now.
JEFF COLLINS: Yes.
BILL MURPHY: And tell me some of the things that you’ve been involved with Mad Dog. For example, I know one of the things that he’s trying to get, and I’m sure you’re doing the same thing, is try to get Carroll Hospital Center on board with the Veterans Administration as far as instead of the veterans, like myself, that have to go to Green Street to have it here locally in Carroll County.
JEFF COLLINS: I can’t speak a lot, it’s ongoing, about using Tammy Black and Access Carroll to have our own clinic similar to Loch Raven, Fort Meade, Fort Dietrick It’s ongoing.
The director of the Bureau of Aging and Disabilities that I work with, and my supervisor and myself met with the vice president of the hospital Wednesday. And that was one of the things we discussed. They’re very active in looking at it themselves. And I see it happening.
It involves bureaucracy, and not on a county level, but on a federal level. So it’ll take some time. But yes, Mike was a Maryland Veteran of the Year last year. It was his work, Frank Valenti and Commissioner Howard that’s the reason I’m sitting here. They pushed this through. Again, it’s the only county in the state that has Veteran Service Officers.
The Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs has, I believe, 13 Service Officers, I could be wrong on that, but they’re situated throughout the state and they handle much larger areas. We’re also the only county that has its own van that we take veterans to their appointments. We have shown dedication to veterans here in Carroll County that no other county has shown.
BILL MURPHY: How about post traumatic stress disorder. I know a lot of the vets that are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran. What is the veterans doing to try to help this problem with all these veterans that have had this traumatic stress? If’s huge.
JEFF COLLINS: I’ll start off by mentioning something before that. And that is anyone who’s been in combat. I spent almost 12 months in combat. We all suffer from post traumatic stress. All the difference between post traumatic, and it’s a big difference, but the difference between post traumatic stress and post traumatic stress disorder is you’re able to live with it without consequence.
It becomes a disorder when something Triggers it. And I’m not a doctor. Although my wife says I could play one on TV because of the beard. The disorder can be triggered by anything. It doesn’t have to be about your military time. It could be any stressful situation that brings that to mind.
I suffer from it. But I don’t believe I suffer from it directly from the actions. Being shot down. Having leeches all over me. Eating army food for three years. I had my aircraft commander that I was shot down with twice die not too long ago. And just hearing that triggered emotions that I didn’t know I had.
So what the VA has finally acknowledged, through humiliation, I think, the need to really address the issue. Once again, the forms that we have to fill out makes it difficult for veterans to get not just the compensation, because there is compensation involved for most that can prove combat involvement that causes the disorder.
But treatment– we have an excellent facility in Baltimore that takes care of it. I’ve sent probably a few dozen veterans, and almost all of them have stayed in the process. Because it’s not something where you go to a meeting, and you say, I’ve got this. This is what happened to me every time I smell diesel.
You know, I have a problem. It’s something that is resolved over a period of time. TBI, traumatic brain injury is the one that was almost universally ignored. I suffer from seizures. I was in commas twice. I have what’s called a, and this is a neurologist term, a plethora of nonspecific white matter in my brain, which my wife is taken to calling me “nonspecific white matter.”
And I receive treatment for that. I have very few complaints as a disabled veteran. A lot of it has to do where I go. We send veterans to both Green Street, which is done in Baltimore. But we also send them to Martinsburg, West Virginia. There’s a difference in day and night in just the hospital setups.
Martinsburg is a quiet, more serene surrounding. Baltimore has one of the state of art cancer centers now. They have laser knife. It’s an excellent facility for cancer. So as far as what they’re doing for post traumatic stress and TBI, they’re doing much more than they did. How much more they can do remains to be seen.
BILL MURPHY: Let’s go back to your time in the military. What did you really like? It was during the Vietnamese war?
JEFF COLLINS: Yes
BILL MURPHY: What did you get out of that as far as your feelings, your emotions? As far as being a part of protecting the United States?
JEFF COLLINS: Well, you know, because I was drafted, excuse me, and I come from a well-educated family, a large family. I had family friends offering to send me to Canada. But I had a family that spent a great deal of time talking to me about the process, and why we were there.
I think I went over with a clear mindset as to why we were in Vietnam. Far less to do with politics, more to do with corporate America. I acknowledged that, and I accepted that. I don’t regret my time there.
I think it gave me a sense of who I was. But I would not have had otherwise. I think it’s hard to explain to anyone that hasn’t gone through combat what you get out of it.
I don’t know that you can have a closer relationship to people than those that you serve with, who die with you. Or who save your life, as my aircraft commander did twice. So what I really got out of it set the stage for my civilian careers.
I had a great success in civilian life with a variety of industries and positions. Because I went in with the mindset they can’t kill me. So anything that happened in civilian life was a piece of cake.
BILL MURPHY: That’s fantastic. How about Carroll County? How do you like living here in Carroll County, Jeff?
JEFF COLLINS: Love it. I hate Maryland taxes. But my wife and I, we absolutely love it here. Now she’s with the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins. So she has a long drive. I don’t. We talk about that a great deal.
But we have made wonderful friends here. Living in the country, our farm has views forever. It’s a beautiful place. Lots of land, could do with a little less snow. Could do with a little warmer weather.
My birthday’s in June. I think it’s going to snow on my birthday right now. But we’re staying here. We believe in Carroll County, what it does for veterans.
BILL MURPHY: How do you feel about the veterans here in Carroll County? Are they harder to reach? You know, with the attitude that, well, I don’t really need any help, when they really do. And to get them to come to see Jeff Collins at the–
JEFF COLLINS: I’ll start with the first five veterans I saw in October of 2013. The first five veterans I saw were five World War II veterans. They were drug in by daughters or granddaughters.
I asked them all the same question. This was at different times. I would ask them, why haven’t you asked for any benefits from the VA? And they all gave me exactly the same answer. They said, I don’t take handouts. It’s the difference in the generations.
The Vietnam veterans, we were the “leave me alone” generation. Because, primarily, the way we were treated. And I couldn’t get my discharge because I was medically discharged.
I had to stay at my parents home with my braces and all on until, well, from November of ’71 to April of ’72 when I was placed in the Cincinnati VA hospital, where I stayed for a while. And then one morning they said go home.
And I went home without any information as to what was really wrong with me or what they’re going to do for me or anything. And then in August of that year I got a big check. Big at the time, not big now. But big at the time for a young, single guy.
The difference now is that they make an attempt to talk to you and explained to you what’s going to on. When young vets, before they’re vets, when they get out of the service they’re required to go through classes. Whether they listen are not its entirely up to them.
But when you and I were in that didn’t happen. We were simply told to leave. Now they’re given instructions on what’s available to them and what they need to do to get those benefits.
BILL MURPHY: Very good. What do you like most about Carroll County and your job with the vets?
JEFF COLLINS: It’s humbling to hear the stories. It takes much more time than it should. [WHISPERING] Excuse me for a minute. The World War II and the Korean vets are unforgiving.
That is they’re wonderful people. But they know what they went through. They make no apologies, and most of them don’t even want any benefits. I have one veteran from World War II who was a bombardier. He was shot down. He spent two years in a Nazi prison camp.
He says a Nazi doctor saved his life in that prison camp. He came out with malnutrition. He didn’t get services from the VA until 2010. He didn’t get any disability until 2010.
And they didn’t go back and retro pay him. Those are the frustrations. But the humbling experience is listening to the stories. Being able to help any of them is why I’m here.
BILL MURPHY: I remember when I lived down in Virginia as well for 10 years, and we had a Catholic priest, I’m Catholic. And Father Reid, he said one thing to me and I’ll never forget it. He said, when somebody’s in the sickness or even like the veterans that are having post traumatic stress disorder, the most important thing we could do is be a good listener.
JEFF COLLINS: That’s right.
BILL MURPHY: Any comments?
JEFF COLLINS: The three or four dozen that I’ve been able to get into post traumatic stress disorder treatment had nothing to do with what I said. That’s exactly what you say, you listen.
You listen for the triggers of the things that they say. I can’t sleep. I’ve got apnea. The VA is finally awakened to the fact that sleep apnea can be one of those signs that you have post traumatic stress disorder.
So it’s one of the reason why it takes so long for me to go through that when he comes in the office. I want to hear what they have to say and how they say it. We have a lot of angry vets. I totally understand it.
Jokingly, I’ll qualify this by saying I jokingly say, because I don’t want Carroll County Sheriff to show up in my office tomorrow, that if there is a hostage situation at the Baltimore VA I’m probably involved.
Because the frustration level can be incredibly high with something that’s so simple to resolve. And yet you have to go through the same process, regardless of how complicated the claim is. And so we process the paperwork and we wait.
And the wait can be two years. Most of our claims can be resolved in a year. It doesn’t mean they will be. My very first claim that was successfully processed, the veteran died the same day. That was dishearten.
I balance it by the positive that we get when we see– I recently had a veteran receive 60 plus thousand dollars in back pay because of the problem with DFAS, which is the organization that pays for retired veterans that retire from the military.
But they also receive disability. Now the way the government is set up if you receive a disability compensation from the VA at less than 50%, you do not get that disability if your receiving retired pay. It makes absolutely no sense to me.
I’m sure somebody in Congress, only 18% of Congress ever served in the military, so I guess it makes sense. If you receive more than 50% disability they have to pay you both. It’s not automatic.
Every retired veteran that comes in that receives over 50%, I ask, are you receiving your disability? I have four so far that didn’t. Two received over $30,000 each. One received over $60,000. And one I’m working right now should receive over $80,000, because no one told them.
So those issues are the real frustrating ones. You ask about the issue of veterans knowing what to do. We can only put out so much information. We’re not a rich county. I don’t even know if I have a budget.
I shouldn’t say that with my director and my supervisor listening to this. We have rack cards. I have a business cards. I give talks. Jim Hillman gives talks. But every day I hear from veterans that say, I didn’t even know you were here.
We have a vet’s council that has both volunteers and assigned members. Frank Valinti heads that up because he was one of the individuals that has– the position even exists because of Frank.
Frank’s a really good man. He’s the director of Social Services for the state of Maryland here in Carroll County. He’s a good man. He’s former army, so I do pay attention to what he has to say.
And we meet the third Tuesday of every month at the SS, which is off of 97. And at 3 o’clock, I’m sorry two o’clock. And we try to get out of there by three. But that organization or council is set up to try to do the most we can for Carroll County vets.
BILL MURPHY: All right. Well, Jeff, in closing I’d just like to thank you for coming to be one of our interviewees. And I’m deeply committed to the veterans like yourself. But I could see your commitment to them is outstanding. And we here at Carroll County thank you for all the good efforts that you’re doing on behalf of the veterans.
JEFF COLLINS: Thank you.
BILL MURPHY: Appreciate it.