A decade ago, the military turned to Army Reserve Maj. Gen. James Collins to help build up forces deploying to Iraq from what was then called Fort Lewis. The post swelled with new units heading overseas.
Now, eight years into retirement, Collins advocates for the Army in the Puget Sound area as the military draws down from peak war footing with broad cuts nationwide.
He’s Washington state’s civilian aide to the secretary of the Army. In this volunteer position, he takes the pulse of the Army in the Evergreen State and relays his observations to Secretary of the Army John McHugh.
Collins, a Steilacoom resident, has another behind-the-scenes role in preparing the local military community for the drawdown. The former Weyerhaeuser executive is one of the founders of Hire America’s Heroes, a Seattle nonprofit launched in 2007 to spur corporate America to hire more veterans.
He recently spoke with The News Tribune about the changes he sees coming to the Army in the next few years.
Q: Last month, almost 70 civilian aides to the secretary of the Army joined you for a conference at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. What were you able to show your peers?
A: Many of the people came from states and territories that don’t have active-duty troops like we do in Washington. We were able to show them how the Guard, the Reserve and the active duty of all services work together as one team.
They now understand so much better the things the Army and the Air Force are doing. They’re impressed with the caliber of people, too.
Q: You were the I Corps deputy commander in a time of rapid growth. Now the Army is shrinking by tens of thousands of soldiers. What do you see around the corner for the Army here?
A: Change will be the norm, but that’s not new to those of us who have served in uniform. We serve at the direction of the president, and the resources the Congress provides to help the nation achieve its strategic aims and objectives change from time to time.
Our real challenge as a nation at this point is that the Congress has the responsibility to provide for the common defense. What’s going now is our representatives and our senators are listening to what the needs are and they’re listening to the public about how much is affordable.
Q: Is the drawdown taking place too quickly?
A: There’s always that risk. The Army’s busy. We have troops forward deployed — some on missions the public will read about in the McClatchy papers, some they won’t.
The brigade combat teams, those large formations, probably are less likely to be deployed regularly, but the brigades will have elements that are continually deployed. For example, here in the Pacific, troops from I Corps are sourcing a mission to have troops from a Stryker brigade in the Pacific for the next 120 days. They’ll be working in Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan.
They are doing training that helps to ensure interoperability between us and our treaty partners. They are also demonstrating the Army is viable even in times when most of our troops are at home.
Q: The Army recently released a study that broadly forecasted cuts of up to 16,000 soldiers from every major Army installation, including JBLM. Is it important for the public to respond to that study, or will the Army make its decisions based on its own military analysis?
A: Absolutely important. They need to step in and tell both the Army and our representatives and senators at the federal level about what is important to them about where we sit today, JBLM.
The Army is asking the public to tell them “What would you think if we cut to this amount, or how would that impact your state’s support of the Army, or is there something you want to be sure we don’t miss?”
Q: In the last round of cuts, almost no one from this community gave feedback to the Army about the drawdown. Do people take for granted that their lawmakers will protect the military installations here?
A: It was very quiet. I think that’s a risk, and because we’ve had such effective elected leaders in telling the story, people kind of went to sleep, and that’s not good at this point.
Q: Unemployment among veterans is declining. Did groups like Hire America’s Heroes make a difference in that trend, and how so?
A: I do think Hire America’s Heroes made a difference for two reasons.
First, to work with us, we require (companies) to make a financial contribution. They annually re-evaluate their contributions, and they stay with us.
Secondly, we get feedback from people who get jobs and also people from other states who say we need that here, too.
Over the years, since 2007, I’ve developed the strong opinion that we need a nonprofit like this as an unintended consequence of the all-volunteer force. Those who are making hiring decisions in corporate America today probably haven’t served, so they don’t have first-hand knowledge about the capacity, the work ethic and the enormously rich experience (veterans) have.