Earlier this afternoon, I drove down to Tyrone, Georgia, to learn more about the life of 1st Lt. Robert Collins. As hundreds lined the streets of Tyrone and Peachtree City to honor the hometown hero, I was struck by how many different people told me the same thing, without hesitation. He was the funniest person they'd ever met.
"He always had a smile on his face," said Jason Swain, who knew 1st Lt. Collins through school and church. "When we'd play softball together and I was already on base, he'd run up right behind me after getting a hit, telling me to get moving."
While Collins didn't mind a private chuckle, he usually wasn't having fun unless he could entertain the people around him.
"I've never seen someone so focused on making people laugh," Justin Galimore, who spent a decade in various classrooms with Collins, explained.
While many friends and area residents kept smiles on their faces because they knew that's what Collins would have wanted, the reason for the large gathering south of Atlanta was solemn. On April 7, Collins, 24, and Pfc. William Blount, 21, were killed by an improvised explosive device planted by terrorists in Mosul, Iraq. The Unknown Soldiers will also write about Pfc. Blount's life in the days ahead.
While Collins' sense of humor is legendary around Tyrone, the intense drive to success he displayed is also deeply respected in the community. His parents, Lt. Col. Sharon Collins (Ret.) and Lt. Col. Burkitt Collins (Ret.), clearly instilled passionate, patriotic determination in their only child, who showed unmistakable signs of future leadership as a student at Sandy Creek High School.
"He was class president for a reason," a classmate told me. "Everyone knew who Robert Collins was."
Collins' intellectual brilliance shined in the classroom, and his physical toughness translated to the football field, where Collins excelled on the varsity squad. An airman who knew Collins told me his friend was once hit hard by a defensive lineman from Tyrone named Kedric Golston. Collins suffered a serious knee injury on the play, but stayed on the field for at least two more snaps before limping to the sidelines. The fierce hit may have showed why Golston would become a defensive lineman for the University of Georgia and later the Washington Redskins, but Collins' refusal to quit showed why he would become an American soldier.
Collins attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where so many brave men and women before him have studied and trained. One of those heroes is 1st Lt. Tyler Parten, who I have been honored to write about extensively. Parten's mother, Lona, who has shown amazing courage and strength since her oldest son's tragic death in September, was the first person to alert me to Collins' story. It amazes me how West Point, which 1st Lt. Parten's younger brother, Daniel, now attends, is such a close-knit family.
Like Parten in Afghanistan, Collins was a platoon leader in Iraq. Today, the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team is undoubtedly thinking about a man many of them looked up to, as well as fallen Pfc. William Blount. Collins, who will be laid to rest on Saturday morning, arrived at Peachtree City's Falcon Field at noon. As I patiently waited to wave my flag to honor him, I couldn't help but marvel at the incredible turnout to salute this volunteer warrior. Police closed streets, fire engines displayed tributes, businesses closed, and strangers came to town to honor a son of American heroes who worked so hard to follow in his parents' footsteps.
As the motorcade carrying the soldier's flag-draped casket approached, sounds of grief began to drown out the Patriot Guard Riders of Georgia motorcycles. While almost everyone in the group knew Collins, many are also friends with his beloved girlfriend of eight years. Thoughts of her aching heart spurred tears as well.
While I recorded video of this solemn moment, I believe it is most appropriate to keep these difficult emotions private. Like the below West Point graduation picture shows, Collins always wanted his smile to encourage happiness in others. It did. Yet the courageous soldier is also helping us reflect on the extraordinary, often underappreciated accomplishments of his generation since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While I wish I had met the fine people of Tyrone under different circumstances, spending a few hours with friends of 1st Lt. Robert Collins was a distinct honor I will never forget.
Note: The 1st Lt. Robert Wilson Collins Patriot Spirit Scholarship has been established in loving memory of the fallen soldier. An address for donations can be found at the bottom of this linked page.