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Inspiration from the life of the late BT Collins

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POSTED November 11, 2013 12:28 a.m.

Edito’s note:: This is a tribute to the late BT Collins, Vietnam War hero and public servant, submitted by sisters Nora Romero (Collins’ former Chief of Staff), Alma Alcala-Lozano (Collins’ former special assistant), and Aurora Alcala (retired Specialist 5 Sergeant, U.S. Army, and member of Manuel Roxas Post #798 American Legion of Stockton. Romero, Alcala-Lozano, and Alcala are the daughters of the late Atanasio Alcala of the 978th Signal Battalion, 1st Philippine Infantry, US Army – World War II, and teletype operator to General Douglas McArthur. The World War II veteran and his late wife Maria were longtime residents of Manteca.

This Veterans Day 2013, as our nation honors all who served, we would especially like to gift the wounded warriors of this century’s wars, with the story of the indomitable B.T. Collins – soldier, statesman, standard-bearer of American honor, integrity, and courage.

Brien Thomas Collins served his country as a combat soldier in Vietnam from 1963 to 1968.  As a tactical commander of the Mobile Guerilla Force, 5th Special Forces Group Airborne, his life was forever changed on June 20, 1967. While engaged in a fire-fight in Vinh Binh province, he was ravaged by a horrific grenade explosion.  The traumatic event resulted in the surgical amputation of his right leg above the knee, amputation of his right arm below the elbow, and significant loss of hearing in his right ear.  After a long, painful recovery, he was medically discharged as Captain and proceeded to begin life anew. 

It was heart-wrenching for his father to watch his 27-year old son learn to tie his shoestrings all over again as he once did as a child.  But this step was just the beginning of many challenges that BT faced.  It took ingenuity and fortitude to take on such tasks as cutting steak with a hook, driving a car with prosthetic limbs, and opening the dozens of prescription bottles for a multiplicity of injury-induced health conditions.  He became a left-handed writer, and though his penmanship often required a bit of deciphering, it was mostly legible. Yet more tortuous than these grueling adaptations to everyday life, was the hostility from anti-war protesters who vilified the returning Vietnam veterans.  Times were different then.

Undaunted and determined, BT decided to make something of himself in civilian life.  He entered law school at Santa Clara University, earning his Bachelor of Science and Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees.   He went on to find his calling in the halls of the California State Capitol where he served Governors Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, and Pete Wilson in remarkable and inventive ways.

He was the driving force behind the formation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  As Director of the Youth Authority, he gained national attention by compelling young inmates to focus on reading and writing skills.  He returned their letters with red ink on grammar and spelling errors.  He made the California Conservation Corps a global model for young people to learn work ethics, self-discipline, and public service.  His signature motto, “Hard Work, Low Pay, and Miserable Conditions,” gave Corps members a great sense of pride and accomplishment, along with valuable work skills.

In 1991, BT was elected to the California State Assembly, where he cut his salary by 10%, requesting his pay be withheld until the budget was approved by the Legislature. “Leadership, Character – you don’t ask your people to do something you wouldn’t do,” he would say.  Dedicated to the end, before he died, he was preparing legislation that would make rape punishable by castration.  An ardent defender of abused women, he raised thousands of dollars for programs to support and empower them.  Always his own man, he was loved and revered by both Democrats and Republicans, calling himself “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”

Public service to BT was an admirable occupation.  When he returned from the war, he knew exactly what he stood for and what he believed in. He treated everyone with respect whether legislator or laborer.  He phoned and sent hundreds of handwritten letters for birthdays and special occasions.  If he learned about someone losing a limb, he wrote to them.  He made it a point to express high regard for law enforcement.  Whenever notified, he drove to Travis Air Force Base to welcome home the remains of MIAs returning from Vietnam, honoring them for their sacrifices.

BT would be proud of all the young men and women who have served and are still serving our country.  He would encourage, inspire, and support you through whatever traumas may burden you.  He would call you into action and tell you that you have everything to live and strive for, because you are “Made in America.”

May the story and legacy of B.T. Collins give to you, our Soldiers & Veterans, the courage, hope, and wherewithal to fulfill your highest dreams and destiny in these United States of America.  We are ever grateful for your service.

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