Sunday, May 1, 2011

Serving with B. C. Collins

I was thinking about a Marine I once served with the other day and I thought I would share some memories here. His name was Staff Sergeant Bryant C. Collins. Those who could refer to him by something other than his rank called him B.C. I wasn't one of those people as I was just a 20-year old sergeant when I met him, and I didn't have anywhere nearly enough stature to try to presume to be that familiar. He had been awarded the Navy Cross - the nation's second highest award for valor in combat - in Vietnam. With a little more than two years of peacetime service under my belt at that time, my credentials didn't compare.

He checked in to my unit - G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment - as my platoon sergeant. We were the weapons platoon, a platoon that operated the company's M-60 machine guns, light anti-tank weapons, and 60 mm mortars. I was in charge of the mortars.

I met him almost immediately when he arrived. After he took care of the administrative parts of checking in to the company, he introduced himself to me and said, "let's go get lunch." I asked him where he wanted to go - there weren't a lot of options - and he said we should go get something off base. We got in my car and drove into the heart of the bad part of Jacksonville, North Carolina. He wanted to go to a bar called "Sissy's." It surprised me a little at the time, but as I got to know him later on, it seemed to make more sense. I thought, "Well, they probably have those bar pizzas or something there." Once we got there, it seemed to be kind of a reunion for him. We didn't order pizzas; we ordered beer. We had to be back at work in an hour so we drank a beer for lunch then went back to the base. It was a different era then, but still, that was a first for me. It seems that era passed quickly because I never did it again.

SSgt Collins was almost always chomping on a cigar, and when he wasn't, he looked like he should be. It had been a dozen years since his service in Vietnam and age was catching up with him in some ways, I guess. He wasn't overweight according to Marine Corps standards, but he was "husky." My company commander, a captain who wasn't a Vietnam vet, clearly was not a fan of SSgt Collins. That sentiment went the other way as well.

He put SSgt Collins on the military appearance program, a program that existed back then to try to redistribute the body weight of Marines who weren't overweight, but still didn't look entirely prototypical in a uniform. I didn't think much of the captain putting him on the MAP program; there just seemed to me to be no benefit in pushing this guy in this case.  SSgt Collins was a bona fide war hero, and was within 4 years of retiring at 20 years. SSgt Collins was a man of substance, and I considered the hard time he got from the captain to be part of a flawed peacetime mind set. Of course, I could only guess what a proper wartime mind set might have been, but it seemed to me the captain didn't know either and should have stepped a little more lightly.

In the captain's defense, the Marine Corps needed to complete a transition from the Vietnam era to a new age and mind set. It was a difficult time, and something really did need to happen. There were a lot of problems in the military then with big time racial issues, hard core drug use, and outright crime. At the same time, you had the warriors who had distinguished themselves in combat who had to adjust to something new to them: peacetime. What do you do with the heroes who might not be as eager to reform and change to a culture they've never known and might not fit in to?

The reforms turned out to be exactly what the Marine Corps needed because there were so many cancerous issues out there that threatened national security in the long run, but you hated to see heroes get swept to the side in the process. It turns out that happens in every age. Wars are very hard on military culture and there is always a need to regroup and refocus after they end. Maybe that sounds odd, but the result is a more fit and ready force the next time it's needed. The reforms the military endured after Vietnam set the stage for the military culture that has been so successful and responsive these past 25 years or so.

At the same time, knowing and serving with SSgt Collins did an awful lot to prove to me that not everything is black and white. Here was a living legend who tended to tell people what was on his mind. His solutions to problems tended to be quite uncomplicated and direct. He didn't mind telling superiors where they were wrong in their thinking while talking through that cigar (which was probably irritating to them). He would give them the benefit of one "look, captain..." before giving up on them as being someone who didn't have the sense to know better. He was often right, but obviously, the officers couldn't put up with that.

He was entertaining to be around, that's for sure. We had a "bosses night" at the NCO Club one night. Bosses night is where we would invite our "bosses" who wouldn't normally be allowed to come to our NCO Club to have a few drinks with us. Staff Sergeants normally went to the Staff NCO Club and officers went to the Officers Club. Etiquette had it that the officers didn't stay too long or they'd risk seeing something they would later wish they hadn't. True to form, not long after our officers left, we were told to leave the club because of some offensive outrage perpetrated by one of our group that I won't go into here.

SSgt Collins was in stride that night and had the idea that we - our Company Gunnery Sergeant who had served with SSgt Collins in Vietnam, SSgt Collins, and I - should go to the Staff NCO Club at the neighboring Marine Corps Air Station. The problem was that I didn't have enough rank to be there.  SSgt Collins had a solution: he took his Staff Sergeant stripes off of his collar and pinned them on my collar in place of my Sergeant stripes. I was 20 years old then and I looked like I was 15. I was already very young for the rank I had, and looked it. There was NO WAY anyone would believe I was a Staff Sergeant. I had never felt so awkward and uncomfortable in my life. I felt like I was just a step away from the brig the whole time we were in there.

Thankfully, we got out of there without stirring anyone up. I don't think anyone was fooled though. We had one "old" guy (who was probably all of 32 years old at the time) with no rank on his collar and a young guy with way too much rank on his. It was kind of an interesting mix of "you can't be serious" and "well, at least you made an effort to make it look good." I'm not sure anyone would have taken my escorts on anyway; they had both been around and looked like it.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to serve with B.C. Collins. I learned a lot about leadership and people by being around him. Having served with him ultimately made me a better officer too. He was a passing breed in his own time, tragic in his battle against obsolescence in an emerging era, yet undeniably heroic. I was happy to see the day he got promoted to gunnery sergeant. While his "paper" in the peacetime Marine Corps might not have been nearly as good as it was in his wartime service, it seems someone at the top realized the value guys like him brought to the rich heritage of the Marine Corps and the legacy they leave every generation to guys like me. Heroes always add value, and the Marine Corps seems to maintain a culture that ultimately understands and rewards that, in spite of the few who don't always get the memo.

Take a look at his Navy Cross citation HERE. The Marine officer whose body the young Corporal Collins carried off of the battlefield that day was 1stLt Frank Reasoner.  1stLt Reasoner was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his own actions that day.