From Combat to Critical Care: Student Nurse, Former Marine Continues to Serve

From Combat to Critical Care: Student Nurse, Former Marine Continues to Serve

Robert Collins found Rutgers 'veteran-friendly'

Cpl. Robert Collins and his wife, Nicole, on their wedding day.
Photo: Robert Collins

'Everything becomes a blur except the ground in front of you. You feel like if you take a step in the wrong direction it could be your last.'
  Robert Collins

Marine Cpl. Robert Collins was leading a patrol near a small town in Afghanistan in 2011 when he heard the patrol’s point man cursing softly, something he often did to keep calm in a tense situation.

Collins soon realized why – the Marine’s metal detector had found an object that looked frighteningly like an improvised explosive devise (IED).

It was Collins job to find out for sure. For this, he grabbed a special tool, the sickle – a curved blade at the end of a long pole – to scrape away the dirt and vegetation covering the object. That the sickle was the Grim Reaper’s weapon of choice was not lost on him.

“Approaching the site, sickle in hand, you can feel your heart rate increase,” Collins said. “Everything becomes a blur except the ground in front of you. You feel like if you take a step in the wrong direction it could be your last." He was able to confirm the suspicion of an IED by tugging on a tight wire that ran perpendicular with the road. "I felt a rush and turned around and walked back as fast as I could."

Collins, one of thousands of Rutgers men and women to serve in the military during the university’s 250-year history, is now back home and a junior in the School of Nursing at Camden. It’s easy to imagine the muscular man with short-cropped hair as the Marine infantryman he was. It’s also easy to imagine him as the critical-care nurse he wants to be. The challenge – the rush – of confronting and overcoming a potentially fatal situation is part of the job.

Marine Cpl. Robert Collins leads a patrol in Afghanistan.
Photo: Robert Collins
Collins enlisted in 2007, a year after graduating from high school in Franklinville, New Jersey. College was not part of the plan. “I got it in my head that college wasn’t for me, and I was fine with that,” he said.

After boot camp and some further training, Collins was assigned to a Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team (FAST) company, which is trained to defend U.S. government installations anywhere in the world on short notice. After two years, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, and went to Afghanistan. He was naturally inclined towards the action and found his service fulfilling. But after Afghanistan, Collins and his battalion went to Hawaii, where the 3rd Marine Division is based, and he was less fulfilled. He began to rethink his plan to spend 20 years in the Marine Corps.  

Collins also began to rethink his attitude toward college and took some general education courses online and at a local college in Hawaii. Once out of the Marines, Collins began to look for veteran-friendly colleges where he might get his degree.

He used a magazine’s list of “veteran-friendly” colleges to begin his search, and was immediately disappointed.  “The only thing that was possibly military-friendly about them is that they may have someone in the billing department who's familiar with getting the school paid by using your GI Bill benefits,” Collins said.

A Marine in Robert Collins' unit holds a sickle, used to clear dirt and vegetation from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Photo: Robert Collings
Collins intended to check out the School of Nursing at Camden, but called New Brunswick by mistake. He expected an email with some contact information, but instead received “a considerate and thought-out message with contact information included that actually displayed an interest in my application process as well as my transition process.” When he visited the campus, he met Fred Davis, the campus director of military and veterans’ affairs, who had a long talk with Collins about his plans, and took him on a tour of the campus.

“A key piece of what we do with veterans is that, when they visit, I walk them around and introduce them to people,” said Davis, a Navy veteran himself. “That’s important to make them feel welcome.”

That’s exactly how Collins says he felt – welcome, respected, listened to – at Rutgers. The simple existence of a veterans’ lounge was helpful, Collins says, because he could meet students who shared many of his experiences. “He’s a good guy, a really squared away guy,” Davis said. “Studies hard and he’s very active with our office and in helping other veterans.”

“Squared away” is military lingo for being ready for the mission. Collins is doing all he can to be ready for the mission. Nursing attracted him partly because of its job security – people will always get sick or injured, and they’ll need nurses. Mainly, however, he sees nursing as fulfilling in much the same way his Marine service was fulfilling.

”Through my clinical experiences I can already see how nurses make an impact on the patients and their families,” he said. “It can be a thankless job, but that's the way I like it. I did not volunteer for the Marines to be thanked.”


Media contact: Ken Branson; 848-932-0580; cell, 908-797-2590;; Greg Trevor, 848-932-0558; cell 732-406-7600;