Tinker Airman earns Bronze Star

  • Published
  • By Mike W. Ray
  • Tinker Public Affairs
The White Aircraft Maintenance Unit Superintendent in Tinker's 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron has joined one of his brothers as a recipient of the Bronze Star for meritorious service in Iraq.

Senior Master Sgt. Jesse A. Collins III was awarded the medal for "exemplary leadership, personal endeavor and devotion to duty" during his deployment to Iraq as Superintendent of the 321st Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, 321st Air Expeditionary Wing, Kirkuk Regional Air Base.

"I am proud and humbled, but also conflicted," the sergeant said later. "A lot of people I worked with deserved the medal as much as I did, if not more."

Between June 17, 2010, and June 14, 2011, Sergeant Collins served as the senior enlisted adviser for 277 Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors in seven squadrons at four locations in Iraq. Their duty was to support counterinsurgency operations and advise and train the Iraqi Air Force and Army Aviation Command, his citation relates.

"We were sent there to train and assist members of the Iraqi Air Force in ways to manage their air power, to bring them back to where they could defend themselves," the sergeant said recently. "Our job was to teach them basic principles and practices of mechanics and airmanship."

While providing oversight of real-world operations and training missions alike, the sergeant "superbly guided the group's engagement in 13,000 combat flight missions spanning 29,000 flight hours," the citation continues.

Specifically, his leadership in advising the Iraqi Air Force in tracking, monitoring and executing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions "produced real-time imagery" for use by U.S. and Iraqi controlling agencies. "Their timely intelligence feeds protected citizens and directly led to apprehension of insurgents following terrorist attacks" in Baghdad.

Sergeant Collins's "constant leadership on the flight line" yielded delivery of 24,000 personnel and 2,000 tons of cargo to and from the base, "fortifying combat support efforts in northern Iraq," the citation says.

Furthermore, after more than 50 attacks against the base by insurgents armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, Sergeant Collins "deftly led the effort to account for personnel, conduct post-attack reconnaissance, render unexploded munitions safe, repair damage, and restore combat flight operations."

During his year-long tour of duty, he never took a day off. "Since I was separated from my family, it was easier to just stay busy every day," he explained.

Besides the language barrier, one of the difficulties was the cultural difference between Iraqis and Americans. "They have an officer-heavy corps structure. When an Iraqi officer needs someone to do manual labor, he summons enlisted personnel," Sergeant Collins said. "For us, though, we trust our Airmen with complex, expensive weapons systems. We leave them in the hands of young men and women -- which is a foreign concept to the Iraqis."

The tour in Iraq was unique, he said. "This was probably the hardest, most difficult but most rewarding deployment I've ever had." The sergeant has deployed "eight or nine times" since joining the Air Force almost 24 years ago. His first deployment was to Saudi Arabia for the Desert Storm campaign that liberated Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991.

Prior to leaving for Iraq, Sergeant Collins went to Fort Dix, N.J., for cultural training, some Arabic language training, combat and survival training.

He thinks he was tapped for the overseas assignment because of his past experience with AC-130 gunships in Air Force Special Operations Command. "I think that's what led to me being put on the short list for Iraq."

Public service features prominently in his family. His father served in the Army during the Korean War, and an uncle was an Army Ranger.

One of Sergeant Collins's older brothers, Tim, served in the Navy during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. His younger brother, Joshua, spent eight years in the Marine Corps and then joined the Army National Guard, earning a Bronze Star for his actions during a firefight while serving in Iraq as a convoy missions commander. Sergeant Collins's oldest brother, Mark, is a deputy sheriff in the family's hometown of Eagle River, WI.

Sergeant Collins said his inter-service familiarity served him well in Iraq. "The Air Force had a small footprint at Kirkuk, so I had to work with Army peers quite often."

The sergeant and his wife, Michelle, have been married for 20 years and have two children: 15-year-old daughter Riley and 11-year-old son Beckett.