A brisk dawn run followed by walking the kids to school isn’t how most people start their day, but it isn’t unheard of. For those who know the story of State Senator Jay Collins, however, that kind of physical exertion seems nothing short of miraculous. And yet for Collins himself, it’s just an average Tuesday.
Now that he’s been elected to represent Senate District 14 in Northwestern Hillsborough County, Collins’ “average Tuesdays” also include a healthy dose of state policy and politics, in addition to the demands and duties of being a husband of 21 years to his wife Layla, and the father of two young sons. Beyond that, he also has plenty of non-political work during his day job as the Chief Programs Officer for Operation Barbecue Relief. The organization’s mission is to provide aid across the country by feeding families who have been displaced by disasters – and he’s also responsible for the group’s non-disaster programs, too.
But only a few years ago, Collins’ “average Tuesdays” looked spectacularly different than the comparatively “normal” routines of today.
For more than two decades, Collins served in the United States Army, retiring at the rank of First Sergeant. But from start to finish, his military career was a wild roller coaster ride that included ups and downs few others have ever experienced.
Collins initially enlisted as a general intelligence specialist, and later volunteered for parachute training where he found himself in the U.S. Army’s Airborne School during the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Those events, combined with hearing stories about fellow soldiers serving in Special Forces units on the forward edge of the Global War on Terror, inspired Collins to attend the rigorous selection process designed to identify soldiers who would be the best fit for a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) team. Also known as “Green Berets,” or “A-Teams” for short, their primary mission specialty is to operate behind enemy lines to carry out clandestine operations.
During the selection phase, Collins says “the weather was historically cold,” but he distinguished himself during selection after discovering a fellow soldier suffering from hypothermia. Collins warmed him and carried him 2 miles back to help. That and other things observed during the selection process earned Collins the leadership award, after which he was selected and trained as a Special Forces medic, one of four specialities within the unit.
Being a medic wasn’t the job Collins had his eye on. The medic training regime was significantly longer than other specialties, meaning it would be months longer before he would be assigned to an operational team. And he was eager to get onto the battlefield where he could start making a difference.
Things have a way of working out though. Collins earned his medic qualification and it wasn’t long before he found himself in the thick of things.
“At the time, everybody thought the war on terror was going to be over within months,” Collins said. “Nobody figured it was gonna go on for 20 years.”
His service as a Green Beret took him on tours to Afghanistan, Iraq, and two deployments to South America.
In 2007, while in Afghanistan, Collins took a bullet in the left forearm, but it took him a moment to realize what the problem was.
“I felt something, I thought it was a bug sting, burning,” Collins explains in a video interview. He remembers his feet slipping, as it turns out, from his own blood. Later that day, with his training as a medic, he helped perform the surgery necessary to treat the wound [photo warning: graphic]. Collins took just 30 days to recover before returning to active duty.
A few months later, while defending his base from attack, an enemy mortal exploded near him, throwing him down a flight of stairs and sending a devastating shock wave and shrapnel into his lower left leg and body. As he dusted himself off, he gratefully noted that “everything was attached.” He noticed his body bleeding in a few spots, but his initial reaction at the time was that “it doesn’t seem like it was that big of a deal.”
Unknown at the time was that the force of the detonation damaged his left leg in ways he didn’t fully appreciate. Over time, the leg gradually worsened – the explosion had caused severe nerve damage to the lymphatic system. Every beat of his heart would pool blood into his foot and ankle.
“By the end of every work day,” he said, “my leg was swollen and blue.”
The pain and complications in his leg eventually got so bad – the hair and toenails had fallen out – that Collins urged Army doctors to amputate. Initially, they refused.
“At that point in 2014,” he explains, “the Army’s philosophy was to try and save everyone’s leg. But sometimes, you have to take a step backward before you can take a step forward, right?”
Collins eventually gained approval from military doctors to have the leg removed. “I was in so much pain every day,” he said. But shortly after the surgery, for the first time in years, Collins said he no longer suffered from the “fog of chronic pain.”
Special Forces soldiers are trained to be self-reliant. Operating far from home behind enemy lines, they have to be. But it was there, lying in a hospital, wondering how he would ever walk again, that Collins says he learned a valuable life lesson. He was determined to get back on his feet, but to do so, he realized he needed the help of strangers. He was awestruck, and not used to it.
“I had to learn to be broken, learn how to accept help.”
That’s how he began the long road of rehabilitation, and how he eventually learned how to walk again.
Defying expectations, he made a full recovery through the use of prosthetics, and went through the process of requalifying on all the skills required to be a fully-deployable Green Beret. He re-earned several highly technical parachute qualifications, proved he could still shoot, communicate and move alongside his fellow Special Forces colleagues, and he eventually returned to serve on active duty for another five years before finally retiring.
In the process of finding a way back, Collins says he also found a yearning to pay forward the kindness and service he received from others. That is what led to his role helping displaced families with Operation Barbecue Relief, and it’s what led him to make the leap into politics. Collins said he jumped into the public arena because he didn’t see enough elected officials supporting the things he believed in.
“The Green Berets are called the ‘Quiet Professionals,'” he explained during an interview with The Capitolist. “But quiet does not mean silent.”
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