Mt. Pleasant native Walter Collins is semi-retired, but the 83-year-old keeps a schedule that rivals those of the public officials he has worked with to find ways to support Cleveland’s veterans.
Collins is part of a group that meets every Tuesday at Rid-All Green Partnership, an urban agriculture center off Kinsman Road that also offers community training and youth programs. The meetings are run by Ed Parris, a veterans’ services liaison from the City of Cleveland, and include Donna Butler, a representative from Ward 5 Council Member Richard Starr’s office. Starr launched the meetings after Collins spoke in March of 2022 during the public comment portion of a City Council meeting where he challenged officials to do more to support Cleveland veterans.
The Tuesday group is currently working on organizing an event for Veterans Day at the Frederick Douglass Recreation Center, but its main focus is on how to engage and support Cleveland veterans who need services but don’t know about all the resources available to them. Too often, Collins said in a recent interview, they don’t seek support until after a crisis.
“Many of the people [in the service] that come from the inner city end up in combat units,” he explained. “Not clerks or cooks. Combat. Out fighting. It’s the community’s responsibility to have proactive programs for veterans with invisible wounds.
“Now mind you, I’m talking about two different types of invisible wounds, which are brain trauma and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. And they don’t get any help until after that behavior has acted out in such a way that people say, ‘Hey, you need help.’”
‘I had a rough time in Vietnam’
Collins told Signal Cleveland that he joined the Army at 16 to avoid going to reform school after getting into trouble. After spending several years in Germany as a communications specialist and cryptographer, he went on to serve four tours of duty in Vietnam. His combat experience, he said, included serving as a “tunnel rat,” a soldier who crawled into the tunnels that the Viet Cong dug to move around undetected. Collins also served for one year as an English-language instructor at the military’s headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City. He earned a Silver Star for his service.
“Most of my combat took place underground,” Collins said. “I was 100, 105 pounds, I was little. … If I hadn’t volunteered to do it, I would have been volunteered to do it because I’m the only one that’s a hundred pounds.
“Everybody looks at it like it’s heroic, but it wasn’t heroic, it was common sense. You go down into that tunnel, you know at most it’s gonna be one or two people shooting at you.”
After his discharge from the Army, Collins returned to the United States and started college in Oklahoma. He soon left school to start working with horses.
“College just wasn’t working out,” he said. “I met a friend, he let me go feed the horses, that’s when I started. I just started going around the horses on a daily basis, and it was relaxing. Come to find out, that’s what equine therapy is. It hadn’t been identified or anything like that yet.
“At the time I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m saving myself.’ I’m just doing what God led me [to].”
Collins left Oklahoma and worked his way up through the horse racing industry to become the first Black state racing investigator in New Mexico while raising a family and establishing his own horse farm, he said. His son currently runs a family business there, breeding, training and racing Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.
“I recognize at 83 now that I did some things that were very, very special,” he said. “At this point in my life, my veterans and my horses, they are tied together for me. There’s no separation. … PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] wasn’t even thought about at that time. When I drifted off into horses and things like that, I know that was God’s way to kind of start protecting me from things, because I had had a rough time in Vietnam. I had a rough time.”
‘They heard me’
Collins returned to Cleveland in 2000 to manage his family’s trucking business here. That eventually led to his connection with Rid-All co-founder Damien Forshe, who died in 2018. Before he passed, Forshe told Collins that the new veterans’ center they had been championing since 2016 would bear Collins’ name. Earlier this year, Council approved $750,000 in funding for the Walter Collins Veterans Housing and Service Facility, to be built in the Union-Miles neighborhood.
“He loves us so,” Rid-All’s Dave ‘Dr. Greenhand’ Hester said of Collins. “He says we’re like his second family. His passion for the veterans is just totally amazing. He’s spunky, you know, if music starts playing in here he might start dancing, and it’s just like, ‘Man, where do you have this energy from?’”
After his first appearance in 2022, Collins addressed council three more times to rally support for Cleveland veterans. The last time, in May, he updated members on the work of the Tuesday group.
“Because of your interest and your input to the mayor,” he said, “a veteran right now can pick up the phone, call Ed [Parris], and tomorrow at our meeting we could sit down [to] talk about that veteran’s issue, and I guarantee you when we leave, that veteran would have a clear path to whatever his issue was he was dealing with.”
When asked if he felt heard by City Council, Collins replied, “Absolutely. I don’t think they hear everybody. They heard me.”