Please tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Oreland, a neighborhood in Springfield Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. My parents are members of “The Greatest Generation,” so I grew up with my father’s stories of his service during World War II in Europe with the Army Air Corps. So many of my parents' friends and family of their generation served in WW II or Korea—and I had a cousin who had served in Vietnam—that I just assumed military service was yet another of the many expected responsibilities of citizenship in a young man’s life. I attended college at La Salle University where I earned a BA in Political Science and minored in International Studies. In addition to doing ROTC I was a member of the crew team at La Salle and actually delayed my acceptance to Widener’s Harrisburg campus for two years while I rowed at Bachelors Barge Club along Boat House Row trying to make the lightweight National Team. I also worked those two years as a paralegal for Berger and Montague, PC, in their securities litigation department, where I became quite familiar with SEC Rule 10b-5 as well as state derivative and Blue Sky litigation. While I never did make the national team, the opportunity to train and compete with athletes of that caliber was amazing and taught me much about commitment, dedication and persistence in pursuing goals. The time at Berger was a valuable introduction to the legal community in Philadelphia and preparation for law school.
The views presented in this interview are those of Major Collins and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of Navy, or the U.S. Marine Corps.
I have many fond memories of my time attending the Harrisburg Campus, most of them centering around the students and faculty who did much to inspire and encourage me. Professors like Randy Lee
(Torts, Ethics), James Diehm
(Criminal Law) and Charlie Geyh (Contracts) are among those I continue to hold in the highest esteem. My closest friends were Ed Cherry and Tom Capper who helped me to found the St. Thomas More Law Society at the Harrisburg Campus in fall 1992. We held two successful 5K run/walks to support Project Mercy along with many other service projects led by our members. It was actually both amusing and rewarding to learn the society continued after I graduated when I saw former U.S. Representative Patrick Murphy ’99 listed his presidency of the society at the Harrisburg Campus among his career achievements.
My greatest life accomplishments though are being the husband of my wife Jill and proud father of my three daughters Erin, Bridget and Nora.Please tell us about the trajectory of your career: your deployment overseas, your own experience with IDES, and your work with Congress. How did you get where you are today?
I really don’t have a defined career path. In some ways it is very typical of many Marine Judge Advocates in that I have been sort of a “jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” I have gone where my orders took me and where I was told the Marine Corps needed me. My service has taken me and my family to various places throughout the U.S. and the Pacific Rim as well as the Middle East. I have held very traditional jobs like Chief of Legal Assistance, Defense Counsel and various SJA billets both during peace time and war. I have also held less common jobs like Government Appellate Counsel, Professor of Law and Deputy Director of Character Education at the U.S. Naval Academy, been a detention release authority conducting 72 hour detainee reviews in Iraq and served as the G-3 Police and Boarder Transition Team Coordinator for Multi National Forces-West in Iraq. One of the most rewarding tasks was being part of the Rule of Law Working Group for MNF-W and helping the local Iraqis hold their first civilian criminal trials in Al Anbar Province since the start of the war.
During both of my deployments I experienced complications with an existing medical condition that resulted in my medical evacuation 5 months into the first 6 month deployment and 10 months into the second 12 month deployment. I went through the Med Board process after each deployment and was referred to the PEB after the second where I was eventually transferred to the Temporary Disabled Retired List in August 2008. I was very unprepared for this major transition and was not aided by the contentious Presidential election and economic recession that would hit in October of that year and their effect on the job market.
I interviewed in January 2009 for the non-partisan U.S. House of Representatives Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program and was hired to serve on the staff of then Speaker Nancy Pelosi as an Advisor on Armed Services and Veterans Affairs policy and outreach. The opportunity to observe and be a part of government at this level was incredible. At the conclusion of the fellowship in February 2011, I was offered a senior staff position by the incoming Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Jeff Miller of Florida, to serve as the Staff Director and Counsel for the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. This Subcommittee has oversight of the Veterans Benefit Administration’s compensation, pension and insurance programs as well as oversight of the National Cemetery Administration and Joint oversight over Arlington National Cemetery. My Subcommittee Chairman was Representative Jon Runyan (NJ-3) the former Philadelphia Eagle. I am ever in debt to Chairman Miller and Representative Runyan for putting their trust in me to hold this position. The opportunity to coordinate the subcommittee’s legislative and oversight agendas was a phenomenal privilege. Helping to draft and move legislation that would have meaningful benefit for fellow veterans through the committee, and then to be on the House floor for its debate and passage was an experience that will be difficult to equal.
Being on the TDRL, I was subject to periodic examinations and review by the PEB every 18 months for up to five years from the time of my retirement. On the second such exam and review, the PEB found me fit to return to duty. Even though I am looking at the possibility of being a terminal major for up to the next seven years because of my medical situation, the opportunity to again be a Marine serving other Marines and to finish my active duty career properly was too great to pass up. The fact that I have been assigned to a billet that will allow me to tap into both my personal experience with the DES process and my time on Capitol Hill to benefit Marines and sailors going through the IDES is incredibly exciting. I have yet to figure out what I want to do beyond the Marine Corps; the chance to return to Capitol Hill in some capacity will be tempting, but I also very much want to return home to Philadelphia. Even after all these years it is still home and where I want to eventually settle down with my family. Once a Philadelphia lawyer, always a Philadelphia lawyer at heart. Please tell me about your recommissioning as well as your new assignment and responsibilities with the Judge Advocate Division.
My recommissioning is actually something very special to me. When I was first transferred to the Temporary Disabled Retired List (TDRL) I thought my career had come to an end. It felt premature and disappointing and came when I was least prepared to make a major life transition. I was profoundly fortunate to have the opportunities that presented themselves to me up on Capitol Hill. At the time I thought they were helping me find new purpose in a civilian career path; but as it turns out they have actually been a major educational process in preparing me for my return to active duty. Only about 1% of those transferred to the TDRL ever are returned to active duty so I realize what a special gift this is to be able to get a second chance to put on the uniform and serve my country in this way.
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi was most gracious to officiate at the ceremony and to allow it to be done in her leadership office in the Capitol. It was the House of Representatives’ Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program she created as Speaker that first brought me to Washington to work on her staff. On a very personal level she has been most kind to both me and my family the entire time we have known her. Including her in my recommissioning just seemed the most fitting way to thank her for all that she has done for us. It also seemed the best way to mark the closing of the circle for my time on the hill and best reflect in ceremony and protocol the great significance return to active duty service has to me and my family. Baptisms, confirmations and weddings are marked in the church and within families by special ceremonies that denote the importance of the occasion. I guess you could say my recommissioning ceremony marking the end of one life and the beginning/renewing of another; it allows me to now I guess to call myself a “born again Marine.”
My first day on the job felt both like being reborn and also as if I had never left. There was a sense of excitement like a kid on Christmas, a little trepidation at what I mind find and encounter after such a long absence and ultimately that feeling of ease, familiarity and comfort one has in putting on a favorite pair of broken-in jeans or picking up a well oiled and used baseball glove after a long winter break. One of the things that has made the transition so easy is that I have the privilege of working everyday alongside some great Americans both military and civilian who are dedicated professionals doing exceptional things every day for Corps and country, and in relative obscurity, that all Americans should know about and appreciate.
I think I have one of the best jobs in the Marine Corps given my very unique experiences of the past few years. I am currently serving on active duty as the Program Head for the Marine Corps' Integrated Disability System (IDES) Counsel Program. In this position I am responsible for the policy development and services coordination of Marine Corps' program to provide legal counsel to Marines and sailors going through the medical board and disability evaluation process. The opportunity to tap into both my personal experience going through the Disability Evaluation System and my experience coordinating congressional oversight of the IDES process is an incredible opportunity that gives new meaning and purpose to the last four years of my life. I am involved in policy, I am involved in advocacy and hopefully what I bring to this position will translate into helping ensure those who are wounded, injured or fall ill while serving their country have adequate counsel and advocacy when they are least able to look after their own legal rights in an administrative process that is often complicated, impersonal and bureaucratic. Can you tell us about the challenges Marines face, particularly those wounded, ill, and injured, when they return from war? Please explain the IDES process from your unique perspective.
People write books on the experience of returning from war. I don’t know that I can give it proper service in just a few sentences. It is a shared experience that at the same time is very personal and very different for each person who serves in a hostile environment. Some are greatly affected by it while others seem to take it in stride with little outward affect displayed. Still I think re-integration at some level is a challenge faced by all veterans. It may be simply adjusting to the pace of life outside the war zone and reintegrating back into the family dynamic after being apart from loved ones for several months to over a year. For some it will be dealing with the death and loss of friends and comrades. For Guard and Reserve it may be the added need to readjust to the civilian job and community they left while serving and the changes that may have taken place while they were away. For the wounded, ill and injured the readjustments may be more dramatic, such as adjusting to a new and more limited range of capabilities, to a new body image, to new family dynamics as family members step in to provide care and support during their recovery, to the reality that their life and the plans they may have had for it before their deployment are forever and permanently changed. They need to find a “new normal” when all they have been through and all that is going on around them seems anything but normal. The up side to this is that so many do manage to find that new normal and thrive. There are countless stories of success and inspiration in the way these service members and veterans overcome what to most of us would seem the most insurmountable of obstacles.
When we talk about “IDES” we are talking about the way DOD and VA deal with service members who get wounded, injured or become ill in combat or at home. Whether you are wounded by an IED, fall off a rappelling tower in training or develop cancer, you are going to come under the IDES process once your medical care begins. If your injuries or recovery are going to affect your ability to perform your duties for an extended period of time, your case is going to be referred to a Medical Board. That board, conducted by local doctors, determines if you can reasonably recover in a six month period and return to full duty or if your case needs to be referred to the Service Department’s Physical Evaluation Board in Washington D.C. to determine if the condition necessitates medical separation or medical retirement.
“IDES” stands for the “Integrated Disability Evaluation System,” and it has been in existence since 2008. Before then the “Disability Evaluation System” existed as two separate systems, one administered by DOD and one by VA. They used the same rating scale for the most part but often came up with very divergent ratings for the same conditions and operated on very different time lines. IDES requires DOD and VA to use one rating scale and one medical exam and ensure all processes by both DOD and VA are rendered in a timely manner with delivery of VA benefits upon separation. In theory this is a great step forward but it is not without its own unique problems and challenges. In some cases unit commanders may not fully understand the medical condition or be in a hurry to move the member along to replace him. Poorly or hastily conducted medical exams can result in a service member not having all his or her service connected medical conditions properly documented. On the DOD side this could mean the difference between a service member being medically separated with a onetime severance payment that will be offset by whatever disability payments they receive from VA or receiving a medical retirement with all related benefits either temporarily or permanently. On the VA side it can affect the disability benefits and healthcare they can receive from the VA. And while they are always able to file a new VA claim later, the burden of proving the service connection of their injury or illness becomes much greater. Then there is the backlog, a claim filed after end of service may take from 1 to7 years to process with the current backlog and depending on which regional office processes it and how far up the appeals process it has to go for resolution.
The IDES process can be very bureaucratic and operates often on very strict time lines. For a service member suffering from PTSD, or a traumatic brain injury, or simply adjusting to the life- altering experience of their wound, injury or illness and the rigors of their recovery, the IDES process can be completely overwhelming and confusing. The role of the IDES Counsel is to guide the service members through the legal aspects of the process, ensure they understand the legal affects of the various decisions they have to make both short term and long term, and when needed zealously advocate on their clients behalf at various points in the process. There has been significant press lately about difficulties within the Veterans Administration. In your opinion, what can we as a nation do to provide appropriate services for our veterans, particularly those returning from war with life-changing injuries?
The problems at the VA are very worrisome and have to be taken seriously. It is a matter of public trust that must be upheld, that when our nation asks its young men and women to go to war that the nation will be there for them when they come home, to help make them whole again and aid in their transition back to civilian life. Every time the VA fails a veteran, it is a breaking of that promise and a soiling of that trust. That said, however, the problems at the VA were not created overnight and will not be resolved overnight, no matter how much we all may want it. As far back as 1945 General Omar Bradley, while serving as the Director of the Veterans Administration, complained about the institutionalized bureaucracy and inefficiencies as he attempted to prepare the agency for the post World War II demands it would face. Fixing the problems at VA requires long term solutions that have shared vision, leadership and commitment from both sides of the political aisle and from all spectrums of American society. Quick fixes focused solely on more money, more personnel, or on technology alone are destined to fail without a culture shift among the employees and a paradigm shift in the institution itself.
I don't want to totally beat on the VA; there is much good the VA is doing every day for veterans from state of the art healthcare to GI Bill educational benefits and home loans, to a cemetery plot in one of the many national cemeteries where veterans are being laid to rest every day with honor and dignity. The problem is that when the VA falls short the damage is glaring against the backdrop of the expectation that ALL veterans will be taken care and NONE will be left behind. When the VA comes up short it is not just a missed opportunity, a learning point or a statistic - it is a human being who is directly affected, and one who has already paid it forward with their service and sacrifice for the nation.
As for what we as a nation can do, first and foremost – don’t forget our service members and veterans once all the troops come home. The war may end but the warriors remain. Large numbers will need to be made whole again either physically, mentally, emotionally or through education and employment to aid their transition back to civilian life. And this will put greater demands on the VA over the next decade as our federal budgets get tighter and people begin looking for the peace dividend as we draw down in Afghanistan.
I see two potential things individuals can do to shape national efforts. First as regards the VA, speak to veterans, read up and educate yourself on the issues and the various bills out there; then reach out to the VA and your elected congressional representatives and let them know the programs, issues and bills that you support to aid our veterans and improve the VA. Add your voice to those of our veterans and those advocating on their behalf to help them be heard.
Second, the government alone cannot do everything, especially in times of constrained federal budgets. There are many, many Veterans Service Organizations both national and local in their scope and engaged in all variety of programs and services. Find one engaged in a project you believe in and volunteer your time or offer your financial support to further their efforts on behalf of veterans.
We are at a unique time in our American history when so few so willingly shoulder the burden rightly belonging to all of us as citizens to defend our nation and the great prosperity it provides us. Less than 1% of all Americans serve on active duty in the military. Less than 10% of living Americans have ever served in any branch of the military in peace or war. Coincidentally, at no other time in our history has our military been more reflective of the American population as a whole in terms of race, gender, socio-economic background, regional diversity, etc. Despite this, veterans’ unemployment continues to remain well above the national average. For veterans between the ages of 18 to 24 that rate jumps up to over 29%. If anyone reading this interview is in a position to hire a veteran, by all means I absolutely encourage you to do so. We need to get these numbers down and we need to improve the national employment picture as well. By hiring a veteran you not only get a new employee, but the intangibles they bring with them in terms of discipline, dedication, hard work, innovative thinking and leadership will pay dividends in the long and short term for your company. What can the legal community and others do to help?
The legal community is keenly situated to do a lot for veterans both at the community level and nationally. Our most noted asset to offer is advocacy, a skill and service always in great need. Advocacy can be local and personal or on a state or national level for the greater veteran population. At home I am very excited to see the Philadelphia Bar Association's Military Assistance Program (MAP). MAP provides pro bono legal assistance to local Delaware Valley active duty and reserve military personnel and their families as well as to military veterans. Locally there is also Widener Law’s own Veterans Law Clinic
representing disabled veterans and their dependents before the VA and in Federal Court. Nationally, the ABA’s Military Pro Bono Project provides a national structure for members of the legal community to share their skills and expertise with America’s service members and veterans. Another national organization doing great things is the National Veterans Legal Service Program (NVLSP) assisting with appeals of veterans claims. Going beyond simply volunteering time and services I encourage law firms to put greater emphasis on hiring veterans for their support staff and counsel positions. They will be surprised at the skill, expertise and energy young veterans will bring to their firm. I also encourage firm managers when seeking services to look at supporting Service Disabled Veteran Owned Businesses whenever possible.
My advice is that if anyone wants to know what to do to help veterans and service members, get to know them. If you don’t have friends and family who are veterans you can talk to, start volunteering with a veteran’s service organization or with any of the VA’s various volunteer opportunities. A veteran won’t be shy to tell you what they think once they get to know you. Then the question won’t be “what can I do” but “how do I prioritize all that has to be done”?