By Todd Travis
Tuesday, March 29 is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Vietnam War veterans from across the United States are being honored this day for their service and sacrifice in the long and difficult Vietnam War. Jay Collars, a Vietnam War veteran and Southside Indianapolis resident, shares his story regarding his service and current involvement with veterans.
Collars was born and raised in Baltimore before joining the Air Force in 1955. At the time, he was interested in the military because of the economic benefits that were provided. “Jobs were pretty low at that time and the economic outlook was not very good,” he explained. Over time, Collars would find that he got much more out of serving than he initially thought. “Once I got in, I found that I loved the career, I loved what I was doing, I loved defending the country and all the patriotism that comes with it. I finally said, ‘This is what I want to do the rest of my life,’” he concluded.
First Vietnam Tour
Collars would go on to serve for 25 years. His basic training was in New York. He trained as an aircraft mechanic in Texas and then spent six years in Greenville, S.C. From that point, he was transferred to New Jersey for two years before getting his first assignment to the combat zone in Vietnam. His first tour in Vietnam was from 1965-66. “The first thing most of us thought when we heard the news was, ‘where is Vietnam?'” Collars joked. “At the time, there was more of a curiosity than nervousness about going because the action was just beginning there, so to speak.”
The first month there, Collars was stationed at an air base outside of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). During that month he experienced his first border attack. “That’s when the scariness set in for us,” Collars recalled. He was there for four months before joining a downed pilot rescue program. Three others were chosen along with him for this program. They trained for four months in Thailand before returning to the highlands of Vietnam to implement the program.
It was during this time that Collars earned a bronze star with a “V” for Valor. He led the crew to save six aircrafts from an incoming overnight attack. “The aircrafts were all loaded up for the next day with full fuel tanks and bombs attached at the wings,” he explained. “We knew we needed to save as many aircraft as possible to be able to use for missions the next day.” His crew was able to remove the bombs, de-fuel the planes and tow them safely away from the area that was being attacked before they could be destroyed.
Returning to the States
After his first tour in Vietnam, Collars was assigned back to the States as a pilot supporting West Point Military Academy. For three years, he flew the officers and sports teams around the country for the games. “That was a lot of fun,” Collars remembered. “I got to see a lot of West Point games I never would have had the chance to see otherwise.” The fun ended when he was given his second assignment to Vietnam.
Second Vietnam Tour
This time around, Collars was a flight engineer but was also asked to be a nighttime fighter pilot on fixed-wing gunships. “I was more nervous this time around, because I knew I would be going into enemy territory and getting shot at from the ground as I flew in,” he explained. In spite of his nerves, Collars would go on to fly 80+ combat missions and received the distinguished flying cross and eight air medals. Thankfully, this would be his last tour in Vietnam before returning safely home.
Upon his return, Jay worked in Indiana with a veterans’ organization called the 40 & 8. He was transferred to Washington to serve as the chief of admin for the VA. After 10 years, he retired and decided to come back to Indiana because of his enjoyment in the Midwest. “No cliche intended, but the ‘Hoosier hospitality’ is what brought me back here. After spending most of my years on the East Coast, the Hoosier hospitality was a totally different atmosphere for me, and I fell in love with it,” he said. His wife, Genieve is an Indiana native who attended school with the famous Hoosier basketball team that the movie Hoosiers is based upon (Milan High School).
Collars’ retirement date was June 30, 1980. He achieved the rank of Chief Master Sargent. In 2019, he was inducted into the Indiana Veterans Hall of Fame. “I’m still humbled by it. When I talk about it, I just get cold chills. I never thought someone such as myself would reach such a pinnacle in life,” Collars mentioned. Last year, he was awarded the Raymond L. White Award for Distinguished Military Service, the highest honor of the Freemasonry.
Today, Collars continues to be heavily involved in veteran affairs. He currently serves as commander of the Marion and Johnson counties chapter of the 40 & 8. They work to support nurses training and child welfare. In February, the 40 & 8 gave $50,000 to Ivy Tech School of Nursing to support the nurses in training. Six years ago, they gave $80,000 to Marion College School of Nursing for scholarships and two years after that they gave $100,000 to University of Indianapolis School of Nursing. Last Christmas, the 40 & 8 gave out six $500 checks to different organizations that work to help children around Marion and Johnson counties.
A word from Chief Master Sargent
Collins shared that National Vietnam War Veterans Day is a day for living veterans. He urges people to support the veterans and the organizations that work to support veterans. “It’s one thing to thank a veteran for serving, it’s another thing to reach out your hand and to help them,” he said.
Steve Milbourn, commander of Greenwood VFW Post 5864, invites the public to attend the post’s Vietnam War Veteran’s Day celebration. “Greenwood VFW Post 5864 will celebrate this event on the day it was proclaimed – March 29. The celebration will get started around 6 p.m. and there will be food and drinks. Plan to stop by and ‘welcome home’ our Vietnam veterans,” he said.