FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Oct. 21, 2022) — Aspiring talk show host, FBI investigator, Roman Catholic priest — all titles that could be used to describe Chaplain (Maj.) James Collins, who currently serves as the chaplain for the 43rd Adjutant General Reception Battalion.
With his dreams of Hollywood stardom and days of chasing down criminals behind him, Collins is currently responsible for the religious counsel of the tens of thousands of new recruits who are processed through Fort Leonard Wood’s reception battalion annually, and the permanent party Soldiers assigned to the unit.
“For most new recruits, this is a major life change,” Collins said. “They are scared and feel alone because they don’t have their family nearby, so a lot of what I deal with is how much they love and need their parents and the fear of what’s next.”
The road that brought him to Fort Leonard Wood was more than three decades long and has been full of twists and turns.
Collins, originally from Elizabeth, New Jersey, majored in television, film and radio at Jersey City College in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the mid-1980s.
“I was hoping to become a late-night talk show host,” he said. “I loved doing cinematography, writing scripts and photography.”
He was offered a few jobs in the entertainment industry, he said, but none appealed to him. Around that same time, a friend, whose father worked for the FBI, suggested his camera and videography skills may be useful to the bureau.
Collins applied and attended the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, in the summer of 1989, setting him on the path to where he is today.
“(Working for the bureau) was a lot of fun and very exciting,” he said. “We were doing stuff nobody was doing. It was all undercover and everything was cloak and dagger. It was an interesting job.”
One day, his partner at the time suggested they attend a local Catholic service during some down-time during an investigation. The experience brought about a sense of nostalgia for Collins, who, despite being raised in a devout Catholic household and actively participating in church activities in his youth, had not stepped foot in a church for years.
Not long after, he was invited to attend another mass. This time, it changed his life forever.
During the service, as Collins was making his way up to the communion rail to receive Holy Communion, a friend stopped and reminded him that to partake in Holy Communion, he needed to first go to confession — something Collins hadn’t done in almost a decade.
“I knelt down and told the priest how long it had been since my last confession,” Collins said. “He said ‘Thanks be to God. Welcome home, son. Welcome home.’ I’ll never forget that.”
After that moment, everything changed for Collins.
“I remember coming out of that church and feeling like I was floating down the avenue,” Collins said. “It was a total renewal. I had a feeling of peace and joy and felt so unburdened. I knew where I needed to be.”
He decided to give the priesthood a chance and took a leave of absence from the FBI in 1997, to attend his first year of seminary. He returned to the bureau over the summer and the brief return was enough to convince him seminary was the right path for him. He submitted his resignation to the FBI in 1998.
The following summer, Collins’ best friend in the seminary was headed to the Army’s Chaplains Basic Officer’s Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and invited him to come along.
“I thought he was nuts wanting to go to South Carolina, in August, and get all dirty and sweaty and live in a tent,” Collins said.
After receiving permission from his archbishop and meeting the Army’s requirements, Collins headed to South Carolina.
“It was zero dark 30 and I was doing pushups out in the field where the grass is razor sharp,” he said. “I was uncoordinated and terrible at the marching and walking, but good at cleaning my uniform. I figured if I couldn’t be a physical star, I could at least look the part.”
After completion of the course, Collins returned to seminary and remained a chaplain candidate with the Army until being ordained in 2004. He joined the New York National Guard as a chaplain shortly after that in 2005, and went active duty in 2013, at the recommendation of his archbishop.
Collins came to Fort Leonard Wood from Fort Lee, Virginia, in 2021. While his position as an Army battalion chaplain may not seem to glitter like his FBI career or his dreams of Hollywood stardom, it’s still an important role, said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Brad Godding, Maneuver Support Center of Excellence command chaplain.
“In a reception battalion, it is the first time a brand-new civilian recruit enters the world of ‘What have I just done?’ and ‘What have I signed my name to?,’” he said. “It can be earth-shattering, so to have the opportunity to speak with someone who serves and cares for them is critical. That’s the role Chaplain Collins plays here at Fort Leonard Wood.”
Collins never questions where he would be had he accepted a job in the entertainment industry, because he knows he is where he is meant to be — here at Fort Leonard Wood, helping America’s newest Soldiers navigate through the start of a new beginning like he has so many times before.
“My motto is, you can make all the plans you want to make, but sometimes God has other plans,” he said. “In the back of my head, I hope I would have been successful, but I don’t think I would have found as much joy or satisfaction doing that as I have found doing this.”
About Fort Leonard Wood
Fort Leonard Wood is a thriving and prosperous installation that has evolved from a small basic training post more than 80 years ago to a premier Army Center of Excellence that trains nearly 80,000 military and civilians each year.
Fort Leonard Wood is home to the U.S Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and three U.S. Army schools: the U.S. Army Engineer School; U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School; and the U.S. Army Military Police School. In addition to training engineer, CBRN and military police specialties for the Army, Fort Leonard Wood also provides gender-integrated in-processing and Basic Combat Training for new Soldiers.
Fort Leonard Wood also hosts and trains with the largest Marine Corps Detachment and Air Force Squadron on any Army installation as well as a large Navy construction detachment.
More information about Fort Leonard Wood is at: https://home.army.mil/wood/index.php/about/mission