FORT GORDON, Ga. – A son of two Atlanta public school educators, Robert Collins III was destined to become an educator. And while he did, it wasn’t the kind he nor his family expected.
Collins, Officer Division chief for the U.S. Army Signal School, attended Morehouse College in Atlanta on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
Today, he spends a substantial amount of time educating and training Signal Corps personnel.
“What we do is try to understand what the ‘Big Army’ strategy is in terms of what it means for the Signal Corps, and now what do we need to do to ensure that our Soldiers are trained on the right things to prepare for where we’re going in the future and what jobs do they need to have as they matriculate through their career to prepare them at each level,” Collins explained.
His love for the Signal Corps took root about 24 years ago and rather unexpectedly. Raised in a home where Collins said “education was always very important,” and with little military background, attending college was inevitable; joining the military was not.
Collins' father was drafted towards the end of the Korean War, forced to leave medical school, and subsequently served two years as military police officer. His father would later go on to fulfill his goal of becoming a teacher, working his way up to high school principal, all the while advocating for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
“He saw the benefits of discipline and citizenship, and he was a principal of a predominantly black high school in the inner city of Atlanta, and for many kids in that area, the military is a path to success,” Collins said of his father.
As fate would have it, Collins wound up receiving an ROTC scholarship with Morehouse. Initially considering the Air Force for its space program, an unexpected turn of events in 1991 led Collins to choose the Army.
“I think what really solidified me going into the Army was when Desert Storm took place, and I saw a press conference with General Colin Powell, and that was the first time I saw an African American male that senior – live on television,” Collins said. “Learning what his role was in that position … to me, that was kind of a motivation.”
In 1998, Collins was commissioned as a signal officer and began his career at Fort Gordon. At the time, he wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to make it a long-term career, but the lifestyle and structured environment drew him in.
“I figured I’d do my four years then see what happens,” Collins said.
Nothing could have prepared him for what happened just three years in.
“I’ll never forget,” Collins said. “It was Sept. 10, 2001, and I was job searching online, building and posting my resume … preparing to get out.”
Then 9/11 happened.
“That night, I’m watching the news seeing everything that’s happening,” he said. “The next day, I deleted my account from the job search site and never looked back after that.”
Collins served in a variety of places and units around the world, including a deployment to Mosul, Iraq. One of his most memorable and influential assignments was at Fort Gordon, from 2011 to 2014, when he had an opportunity to manage several courses including the Basic Officer Leadership Course and Signal Career Captains Course. Collins said he found the mentorship aspect of his job most fulfilling, which enabled him to share his military experiences with young officers – many who would eventually follow his same (or similar) career path. It was also during this time that he developed a new appreciation for teachers.
“Leading up to that point, I never wanted to be a teacher … I wanted to do something different than what my parents did,” Collins said. “But when I got into that job, I had to teach, and I actually realized how much I enjoyed it.”
Collins went on to serve in a number of positions during the years that followed his time as a course manager to include 304th Expeditionary Signal Battalion commander, and 7th Signal Command G-3 and chief of staff; all of which proved to be meaningful and formative in his career.
When it came time to retire, Collins said he “woke up one Saturday morning and was like, ‘I’m done.’ I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do in the Army, and it was just time to go do something else.”
After more than 22 years of service, Collins took off his Army boots and uniform for the last time. But he couldn’t stay away from the Signal Corps, nor teaching. The very weekend he retired from active-duty, Collins interviewed for – and was offered – the position which he currently holds. It is one he was already very familiar with due to previous experience he had while stationed at Fort Gordon.
“I knew that I could influence the entire Signal Corps … help shape what a signal officer’s career path will look like, and being a part of that excited me,” he said.
As Officer Division chief, Collins assists with recruiting cadets from U.S. Military Academy West and ROTC cadets from other universities; works with Department of the Army to help predict and determine the future of the Signal Corps, specifically as it relates to preparing for combat; creates career maps for lieutenants through colonels and warrant officers; and conducts an array of other signal-centric duties to include signal personnel force structure. Although only on the job for about two years, Collins has already made a profound impact.
“Rob comes from a family of educators and as such, he’s an educator at heart,” said Will Norat, Office Chief of Signal director. “He’s currently leading efforts to modernize professional military education for functional area 26B (FA26B) and warrant officer 255A by including data and cloud education. You can say his efforts will help the Army meet emerging requirements for data and cloud professionals.”
“One thing that we’ve been successful in is that we started down this path of the Signal Corps evolving into becoming the data engineers for the Army,” Collins explained. “We’ll continue to do our normal network management and maintenance that we do today providing communication services through computers and phones – we’ll still do that – but the Army had a gap in data engineering and Soldiers being able to integrate emerging technologies with software development, Cloud computing and management of big data, and so we’ve taken that on.”
Addressing speculation from some that the Signal Corps could eventually go away, Collins said that simply is not the case. Looking to the future, Collins said he is excited to be a part of it.
“I think people are going to be surprised in the direction that we are going, because we’re going to be breaking new ground when it comes to talent management – how we assign people to positions, how we train – we’re excited about breaking the norms,” he said.
When Collins isn’t focused on his career, he’s likely focusing his energy on family and community. The husband and father of four is actively involved in church and serves as the vice chair of directors for Augusta Technical College Board of Directors, where he represents Fort Gordon and the Signal Corps. He also serves as secretary for the local Signal Corps Regimental Association.