He set foot back on U.S soil about a month ago, but Doug Collins admits he is still adjusting to life outside the military.
"I’m not sure how to act," Collins said. "There are times I feel like I’m still in Iraq. Then, I realize I’m here."
Collins, 42, a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, completed a four-month tour of duty in Balad, Iraq, in January. He came home to his wife, Lisa, and three children.
While he was gone, Collins learned he had passed the state bar and could begin practicing law. If that were not enough, he is a member of the state House of Representatives, which is currently dealing with a $2.2 billion state budget deficit.
But would he want to be anywhere else? No way.
"For 4« months, I knew when I was going to work and when I wasn’t I was confined to a 5-mile area around the base," he said. "Now, coming home, there are times I have to simply take a deep breath."
Collins said while he missed his own family tremendously during his tour — he was away from home at Thanksgiving and Christmas — he developed a different sense of family among his military colleagues, which included members of the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines.
"We were there and we knew we had to be there," he said. "That closeness surprised me."
He also was surprised that the weather wasn’t much different from Georgia, except in September, when high temperatures hovered around 115 degrees.
Collins, who chronicled his experiences in weekly columns in The Times, said he felt a certain sadness about leaving Iraq.
"By no means was it going to stop me from getting on the plane," he said. "There are times that I think about things that were going on there. Sometimes I see photos and I think about those relationships. They talk about relationships formed under fire and that’s what those were."
Collins, who holds the rank of captain, worked a daily schedule of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. He traveled around the base in a Nissan pickup which was dubbed "Manny." He said Manny was just barely capable of making the rounds, but he managed.
"I would get in the truck and would go from place to place, visiting units on the flight line and at the gates," he said. "I was the person who would come in and have conversations about life. It would break up the night."
He said being a chaplain opened doors. But the real ice breaker was Collins’ Southern drawl.
Joking that his accent was from New Jersey drew a smile from his military colleagues, many of them 20 years his junior.
"It was all about getting to know folks and listening," said Collins, who was called "Chap" by the soldiers, sailors and airmen. "I would just pull up and cut the truck off and we’d start talking."
Collins admits there were trying moments when the base was under mortar fire.
"There were a couple of times that they were rather close," he said. "When you’re over there, you can’t communicate that back home, which may be a good thing. I didn’t want Lisa, the kids and my parents to worry any more than they already were."
He said nights when the fog rolled in were nights that mortar fire was likely.
"I used to love the fog until I went over there," he said. Last week, Collins said he found himself becoming tense on a recent foggy drive to Atlanta.
"Then, I just realized that I was on I-85 and only had to worry about people running into me," Collins said.
He said he comes away from his tour of duty a changed man.
"I always knew that every day counts and things matter. I saw a good bit of death and injury, and that had stuck with me. It made me realize even more that the moments we do have are precious. It also made me want to do something with the life I’ve been given."
On several occasions, Collins officiated at what is called "Patriot Detail," a private memorial service for those closest to the deceased.
Collins returns to his regular outfit in March, and he said he plans to continue in the reserves.
In Iraq, Collins was assigned with the 332nd Air Wing, unit of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
"One of the things that made the Tuskegee Airmen so impressive is not only did they have to overcome the perils of war and machines, but they had to overcome prejudice and the surrounding social circumstances," Collins said.
"As the marking on their airplanes, the Tuskegee Airmen painted the tail red to make a bold statement that they were flying to do the best they could," he said. "Our general said over and over that we were carrying on the legacy of these men, built on integrity and honor."
On Oct. 31, Collins received some long awaited news from home that after three years of study he passed the Georgia Bar examination.
"I broke down and was crying," he said. "After three years of stepping out on faith, it was like a whole wash of relief coming over me."
For the rest of his overnight shift, it was a time of celebration with his colleagues.
Collins is opening a solo general practice at an office on Thompson Bridge Road.
He gives credit and praise to his wife, who kept the home fires burning while he was away.
"While I was gone, we had a water leak that ruined about 300 square feet of hardwood flooring," he said. "She took on the project of having it replaced, which required my family to have to move briefly into a hotel. We’re still in the process of getting settled from that."
As a man of faith, Collins said he found moments of challenge in Iraq.
"I think there is always the question of ‘why?’" he said. "Seeing some of the things we saw was tough. We treated children in the base hospital and that reminded me of my own children.
"But for every moment like that, there were times I saw people go through difficulties with the knowledge that God would work things out."