Sailor’s wartime photos and novelized memoir captures Afghanistan traumas
MEMPHIS—Navy photographer John Allen Collins went into combat armed with a camera, and weapons were secondary things he only used for self-defense. He recalls hearing a bullet whizzing by his head, looking down and seeing part of his camera shattered. It had deflected that bullet.
He returned home to the Spring Lake community of Memphis with a photography portfolio of haunting desert scenes, dusty foreign children, soldiers’ horrific wounds, and a beautiful Afghanistan by moonlight.
He also returned with crippling post-traumatic stress disorder and physical wounds. Collins had cervical bone fragments grinding into tissue near his spinal column, back injuries, broken bones and traumatic brain injuries. Multiple concussions led to traumatic brain injury, and he still suffers from blinding headaches and memory issues. Flashbacks at first were putting him back into the sights, sounds, and smells of combat zones four or five times a week.
It was a different world for a romantic and gentle man who studied voice and composition in college and even wrote and sang an original song to his wife at their wedding.
He spiraled downward with depression, addiction to drugs and alcohol to mask the pain, and emotional numbness. He tried to stuff down his fears and paralyzing memories, both from the combat and from the gruesome forensic photos he processed of wounded bodies and body parts. Collins is third-generation Navy tough, and he toughed it out for years. But the damage from pain and fear stuffed down deep doesn’t stay out of sight forever.
He ended up holding a pistol to his head one afternoon, uncocking it and putting it away only when he heard his children returning home unexpectedly early. Instead, he drove to the Memphis V.A. Medical Center for help. While he was shaking and crying in the waiting room, he watched four therapists walk past him, seeming unconcerned. Then Dr. Linda Summers, who would later take him through weekly sessions that led him out of the darkness, looked into the waiting room and asked if he was okay.
He wasn’t. But years of weekly sessions with her, along with other therapeutic tools, put him back on the road to mental and emotional health and stability.
He began writing about his combat missions as part of therapy, relying on his experience as a former newspaper editor (at The Blue Jacket in Millington) and the clarity of vision that thousands of flashbacks gave him. His therapist read the entries and told him he had something more than a journal there.
His book, “Afghanistan: A Sailor in a Soldier’s World” will go on sale Thanksgiving weekend. It contains 30 examples of his own wartime photography and is his memoir of that war written in the style of a novel. Unlike more diary-style memoirs, it’s written with dialog and the full five senses of immersive realism from someone who was there—and who has relived it thousands of times.
It’s about the gut-punching fear of almost shooting children who leapt out of nowhere in a war zone, opening a door to come face-to-face with a Taliban member when you only have a camera in your hands, or sending your family back home across the ocean when there’s a major terrorism threat while you remain behind in a hostile country.
“The book is a look at the emotional side of warfare,” Collins said.
He published it through CreateSpace, an Amazon.com subsidiary, and it will be available for order as both a printed and digital book on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s websites. He plans on doing local signings and talks once the book is out.
Collins served through three wars: Desert Shield/Storm, the Iraq War (called Operation Iraqi Freedom at the time) and the War in Afghanistan, where he put in his grueling boots-on-the-ground time.
His service started with mentally absorbing studies and practices of studio, aerial, underwater and combat photography. He practiced photojournalism and also shot on-base events such as retirement ceremonies and changes of command. He added multiple qualifications as he advanced to E6, Petty Officer 1st Class, including Enlisted Surface Warfare, Enlisted Aviation Warfare and Advanced Firefighter qualifications all the way up to the damage control training team. He attended the prestigious Department of Defense Photography School twice, once in the “Most Promising” category and once in the “Best” category. He and his wife started a family and spent idyllic years in Japan as he continued his service.
The stress of real wartime service started early. In Desert Storm, he recalled one operation where his ship had to maneuver through mine-strewn waters, and he watched helplessly as another ship hit a mine that lifted it out of the water. He braced for the worst as two Iraqi MiGs headed his way and he knew there were no destroyers nearby, and he felt the relief of seeing two U.S. F-14s splash (bomb) them from a distance just in time to save his ship.
In Afghanistan, both the responsibilities of the position and the brutality of war were heavy weights, but Collins deal with it all.
“It was a mental discipline, so I just suppressed everything,” he said. Collins gestured as if he were holding a camera up, shield-like. “So I just locked everything in behind my camera.”
Collins was responsible for public affairs and combat photography for a 250,000 square-mile area in Afghanistan, where he went on 23 combat missions. He led a 13-person team that produced 10,000 photos and 600 hours of video. During his tour, he shot 3,000 photos that were picked up by 315+ media outlets, reaching 165.7 million people in 100 countries.
In 2008, he was working there with International Security Afghanistan Forces (ISAF) and went on a five-day mission with Dutch infantry in a 1950s-era track vehicle. It was crowded, and when he was not taking his turn manning a machine gun or taking photos from that stance, he sat hunched over on an ammo box. He was seated and couldn’t see it coming like the others when something hit. He felt a searing blast of heat blast the side of the vehicle and an impact sent him flying.
The force dislocated his left shoulder, broke his left clavicle, shattered his C4 and C5 vertebrae, tore ligaments in his back, flipped him upside down and left him hanging by his neck from his comm link. He cut himself down and asked, “What the hell just happened?”
The Dutch told him, “Oh, we just hit something on the road. We’re okay.”
Collins was the only one seriously injured. The medic dosed him with morphine and popped his shoulder back into joint and they continued the mission. Just part of the whole “Bite down and lean forward” attitude of military toughness, he said.
Five days later, he finally got back to base and saw a physical therapist and eventually a doctor who told him firmly there would be no more combat.
He was home suffering for a year because the bone fragments in his neck weren’t visible behind a bulging disk until his wife insisted he get care at Campbell Clinic. His body is still not returned to normal, but the injuries are now more manageable, he said. His insomnia is improving, and he’s now sleeping up to five hours a night. He’s been dealing with the mental and emotional wounds more lately.
Now 46, Collins has been sober for five years and hasn’t abused medication for two years. He is taking control of his life with steps like a pain management clinic he enters next year to reduce his dependence on pain medication.
Despite what he’s suffered, Collins—like so many other veterans—is proud he was able to serve his country. And his country is also proud of him.
He earned the Defense Meritorious Service Medal (one medal down from the Bronze), two Navy achievement medals for meritorious service above and beyond, and a Navy commendation medal.
Writing his book has improved his life, he said. “It’s been a huge therapeutic difference. … The book has been a godsend as far as making me a better human being.”
He hopes reading it will do the same for other veterans and help them and their families understand it’s normal to be fearful, to have that emotion, and deal with that emotion in a healthy way. Otherwise, it festers like a bad wound, he said.
Anyone who says that journaling about fears and other negative feelings is just dwelling on the negative doesn’t understand, he said. “You’re recognizing that you HAVE that emotion.”
Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to email@example.com.
Collins serves as freelance photographer for Journal West 10 News, including The Bartlett Express, as well as a portrait and event photographer. Contact him at (901) 592-7852 for more information.