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A Veteran's Reflection

May 26, 2017

Each person that becomes a member of one of our communities has a unique background. During their time together, team members enjoy learning about each resident’s former careers, life lessons and stories. Although some are hesitant to share deeply personal parts of their lives, we’re fortunate to have many open up and allow us to share their experiences with others. One such story comes from Jim Collins of the Hermitage Roanoke as told by social worker Mary Craddock.

After high school, Jim Collins visited the military recruiting office with high hopes of joining the Marines. After being told he was too small for the Marines, he enlisted in the Army instead. He quickly discovered that he was especially gifted when it came to firearms. The Marksmanship Medal on his uniform shows he held shooting badges ranging from marksman, to sharpshooter, to expert in seven different weapons. Collins served in the Infantry from 1943 to 1945 and is a veteran of two major WWII battles, the D-Day Invasion and Battle of the Bulge.

When talking about the D-Day Invasion, Collins says he knew they were preparing for something big. He was asked to describe landing on Omaha Beach and the moment the ramp lowered on his boat, to which he replied, “My heart was pumping and I was scared to get off.” He ran 200 yards across the exposed beach as fast as he could past mines, through enemy fire, and past bodies. After reaching the seawall, he climbed up the ropes, “like a monkey,” carrying a heavy pack, weapon and folding shovel on his back. “It’s amazing what you can do when you’re young and scared out of your mind,” says Collins. He does not see his actions that historic day as heroic, however. Collins speaks of his part with modesty, stating that the real heroes were the soldiers who did not make it and the Rangers who threw the ropes down over the seawall.

After D-Day, it seemed the war in Europe was nearing an end. The Allies had regained Paris, Casablanca, Naples and Rome. However, Hitler made one last counterattack in December 1944 in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. It is the single biggest and bloodiest battle American soldiers have ever fought with nearly 80,000 soldiers killed, wounded or captured. During the battle, soldiers fought in driving snow and zero-degree weather. Staff Sergeant Jim Collins was leading his platoon for an attack against the Germans when a German 88 shell hit a wall around the stone building where Collins and his platoon were heading. The entire building came down and he was buried alive under the wreckage. A week later, he found himself in a hospital in Paris, but doesn’t remember how he got there. Collins had suffered a major head injury resulting in a metal plate being placed in his head.

Following surgery, he spent a year in the hospital recovering. He has vivid memories of the hospital wards and the injuries sustained by American soldiers. Much to his disappointment, he also had vision and hearing losses from his head injury. Prior to his injury he had perfect vision, which contributed to his expert marksmanship. Collins was unable to remain in the Army and was honorably discharged as a result of his injuries. He is very thankful to have survived the war and went on to live a full life. We give thanks as Kathleen Overby Webster, Roanoke district superintendent, does in her accompanying prayer, for Collins’ ship returning from deployment nearly 70 years ago.

Despite the battle injuries that continues to affect his life and the disappointment of not being able to make military service a life-long career, Collins states that his time in the Army was the best years of his life. His love of country has remained strong and the pride in his service continues to inspire people every day.