Home from Iraq: Specialist Collins just happy to be in NJ

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:53

Ogdensburg — You can ask a friend to watch your dog for a few days when you go away on vacation but who do you ask to watch your dog when you go off to Iraq for nine months? You ask Mom! “I was in B Troop of the 102 Cavalry,” said Specialist Vanessa Collins of Ogdensburg. “My unit was assigned security for Forward Operating Base (FOB) Grizzly in Ashraf City, Iraq. At first we patrolled in up-armored Humvees and up-armored trucks, driving around the almost two- mile perimeter of the base. Later, we switched to ‘towers and gates’ security. At night every shadow seemed to move.” While missing the extremely hot season, she had to deal with the bugs and the boredom. “Flies, mosquitoes, sand fleas and camel spiders,” said Collins. “The spiders have a body as big as the tip of your pinkie finger. The spiders have fangs. All the bugs bite and when you spray them with the latest issue bug spray they don’t care and just keep on coming. The security patrols were 12-hour shifts. My unit spent hours staring out into the empty desert for hours at a time.” The last thing she had to worry about was her dog, Cheyenne, who she left in the care of her mother, Maureen Collins of Ogdensburg. Maureen Collins and Cheyenne were spotted at the rabies shot clinic held at the Ogdensburg Public Works Building in September, 2008. “The Iraqis don’t keep dogs as pets,” said Collins. “The only dogs that were cared for were herding dogs watching the sheep or goats. All the other dogs just wandered around the streets, fending for themselves.” FOB Grizzly was not self-sufficient and relied on a nearby unit for logistical support. Mail call was only once a week but packages reinforced the level of support of the troops in Iraq by the public back home. “The support from the American public was incredible,” said Collins. “Grammar schools, high schools, Legion halls, churches - every group you can think of - sent some kind of care package. My unit even had a small Christmas tree growing in a pot that was supplied by Trees For Troops. My mother sent me a string of lights.” Having electricity in her quarters let Collins keep in touch with family and friends using her laptop computer and the internet. “My laptop was dropped a few times and it still works,” said Collins. “I might even have some desert sand inside of it.” Collins ate some MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) but most of her meals were served in the mess hall. “It was well equipped, looking like a school caféteria,” said Collins. “You could get a full meal or get a sandwich custom made like in a Subway shop. Just point out what you want and the mess staff prepared your sandwich.” To stay in shape the unit had a gym on the base. “The gym had free weights, cable machines, elliptical trainers and air conditioning,” said Collins. “I have seen as many as 40 people in there at a time working out.” As a diversion the unit played soccer against a local team and was soundly defeated. On a less healthy note “French Marlboros-the packs were red and white but with French text labels-were $2 a pack,” said Collins. “The ‘Miami’ brand cigarettes were only 50 cents a pack.” “Being in the unit felt like being a member of a big family,” said Collins. “Being the only woman around was never a problem. I felt like I had 138 brothers. We called the platoon sergeant ‘Pop.’ He watched out for us and really cared about us.” Unlike her first tour in Iraq, no one was shooting at the unit. “You think ‘Hey, somebody is trying to kill me’ but you keep doing what you have to do,” said Collins. “We were in a peaceful area this tour. We had no casualties.” Upon returning to the states she spent some time at Fort Dix awaiting her orders and finally arrived home on June 7. What was she yearning for as far as New Jersey food? “My first meal was steamers (clams) with a side of french fries with cheese,” said Collins. After nine months in Iraq Collins is home until she is called up again. Formerly a resident of Wharton, she is a graduate of Roxbury High School. “I’m taking classes online through Colorado Technical University in criminal justice,” said Collins. Her enlistment expires in 2012. “I have no immediate plans,” said Collins. “I’m just glad to be home.”