Although self-described as boring, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Collins, representing the US Air Force as a National Security Affairs Fellow in 2013-14, is anything but. Humorous, open, friendly (he shared almost immediately that he watches Scandal), and very confident, there were many amusing moments throughout the interview. Collins’s jokes aside, he is a career security forces officer with experience in nuclear security operations and force protection. For his year at Hoover, he is focusing on modernization, recapitalization, and the impact of sequestration on the Department of Defense from a readiness standpoint. This focus has several components, giving rise to the following subquestions: When do we modernize? When do we purchase new equipment? What resources will we need, and how is our ability to forecast? Collins thinks that sequestration will affect how we think about those questions, not necessarily in a negative way, arguing, that “we are doing things better and more efficiently, making tough decisions on what assets we need to keep and what capability those assets must bring. We have benefited from doing business a little bit smarter.” He admits that the military has been forced to accept reduced readiness due to sequestration but that the degree of impact is as yet unclear.
Collins generously took the time to sit down with Hoover to share his life in the military and thus far at Hoover. This is part of a series featuring individual National Security Affairs Fellows from the 2013-14 academic year.
Why did you join the military?
I was accepted to attend the Air Force Academy right out of high school. Unlike most, I have no other family members that served in the military. When I graduated high school, my goal was to go to college, play basketball and focus on a career path in law enforcement. Prior to graduation I was offered an opportunity to visit the Air Force Academy and I absolutely enjoyed it. We were there to become leaders, not athletes, and I rather liked that concept. The team work required in the military is similar to sports, and is what attracted me to military service. I have been a team oriented person all my life and my service in the military has allowed me to play on a winning team for almost 18 years now. I didn’t really have a calling for the military, but I had a need for what the military had to offer and what I could offer the military.
If you hadn’t joined the military, what career would you have chosen?
Honestly, I think I would have pursued my love for basketball. I worked really hard at playing basketball and sometimes I wonder how it would have turned out. Fortunately, I was able to find another career path in the military that pushed me to work even harder and has been the right match for me.
How many deployments have you had and where?
I have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and to the Arabian Peninsula. I participated in border operations missions in Afghanistan and police mentoring. In Iraq, I was fortunate to be a member of a team responsible for planning drawdown operations to ensure a smooth transition out of the war zone for our forces, while at the same time guiding the build-up of operations in Afghanistan. While on the Arabian Peninsula, in Qatar, I was the Deputy Director for Force Protection and was responsible for working with both war zones and providing guidance on security posture.
What was the biggest challenge of your career and why?
My biggest challenge was my first opportunity to command. I had about six hundred personnel, young airmen and civilians. My biggest challenge was working hard to be a effective commander and my unit accomplished our unit mission. Having the opportunity to command a unit at any level is a huge responsibility, because of the impact commanders have not only on our military readiness, but on the lives of the airmen that serve and the families that serve along side them. As a commander you must get it right…very little room for error.
What do you see as the air force’s top challenges in the next few years?
I feel one of our biggest challenges will be modernizing and recapitalizing across the Department of Defense. We can’t live the way we have for the past thirty years and expect to remain a viable military force in the future. We must continue to improve the Department of Defense as a whole, across all Services to remain dominant and capable to meet our nation’s needs and continue to decisively win our nations wars in the future. I don’t doubt that we will ever be in jeopardy of losing a war. However, I have concerns about at what cost and risk we are willing to accept.
What was it like to adjust from your last job to the Hoover fellowship?
I have not adjusted yet, still working on that. The transition has been challenging and yet enjoyable because of what we call operations tempo in the military. The tempo is a bit faster in an military unit. However, the tempo here at Stanford is perfect for what we are here to do and it allows for the fellows to have an opportunity to spend time thinking more strategically and critically about things such as national security and policy issues. The luxury of time in a high operations tempo unit is not always a possibility. A true advantage of being here for a year is having the time to think through issues under a shield of academia and participate in interesting discussions with a diverse group of people.
What is something you have learned since coming to Hoover that makes you think differently?
I was fortunate to get to hear Secretary Rice speak about surrounding ourselves with people that think differently. I have found that there are not a lot of people here that think like most military members. I enjoy listening to what they feel about certain policies and programs and the military in general. However, I have benefited from my interactions here and have taken advantage of the free thinking, original thoughts and discussions on controversial issues. Although I don't always agree with all points of view, it does give me another perspective to pull from and helps me to either strengthen my argument or adjust my viewpoint on many topics.
What have been your interactions with the undergraduate mentees, and what are the students like?
I mentor two students who have no military background and therefore we started with general discussions about the military and the roles and missions of different organizations. However, they are definitely much more informed than I feel I was in college on a variety of issues. I think it’s been a great experience for the fellows here at Stanford to have interaction with the students and sharing our military experience with them. It has been good to be able to share real life experiences and listen to their thoughts and concerns. For example, in one of my current classes we are discussing the formulation of the United Nations and some of the decisions that have been made in deciding to go war. As a military member, being able to discuss our role and experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in class and during our mentoring sessions, it helps the students gain a better understanding of what that the professor is teaching.
What do you do in your spare time?
I train; I’m training for a triathlon right now. So I am always training. I also have been able to do more professional as well as leisure reading. Then I do it all over again (laughs). I relax by reading, watching movies, and just hanging out with my friends. I’m kinda boring.
What is a funny story of your fellow NSAFs that you would like to share?
One of the things we always struggle with is what to wear. We appreciate the fact that we are able to wear our military uniforms every day and put very little thought into what we are wearing. Unfortunately, everyday here we have to give this a great deal of thought which drives very interesting "what are you wearing" conversations. We tend to focus on should we wear a coat, coat no tie...and does this tie go with this discussions. We can never figure out what to wear, it’s hilarious. Somehow we always figure it out...talking about tough decisions.
What does leadership mean to you and how do we develop it in others?
To me, leadership is doing the right thing, and leading by example. Everyone does it differently. Throughout my career I have gotten the opportunity to watch some good leaders and some not so good leaders, and I’ve learned something from all of them. In the military we always say “lead by example.” You live right, you do the right thing, because our troops are always watching. In order to develop leadership in others it is imperative that we mentor and guide our upcoming enlisted and officers personnel. I was mentored by a great officer so I feel it is a charge to me to give back to the next generation of young leaders.