When Shaun Collins strapped on his gear to go into battle for the Nathan Hale Raiders lacrosse team seven years ago, he was living the life of most high-school seniors.
He was about to graduate.
He had goals and dreams, and his was to one day open his own restaurant.
He had no idea that he would one day find himself in the battlefields of Iraq, putting on gear of a different kind, and stepping into a battle that was all too real.
Today, it seems as if his experiences have come full circle, and he's back with the lacrosse program at his alma mater as an assistant coach.
"Nathan Hale lacrosse was pretty rough and rugged back then," Collins said of a program that was still in its infancy during his playing days. "It was just a bunch of football players running around with sticks and hitting each other. Today's level of play is much higher and definitely improved a lot."
On the battlefield
Collins, 26, graduated from Nathan Hale High School in 1998. His aspirations of owning his own restaurant led him to attend a cooking school and business school, on top of attending Seattle Central Community College.
By his own accounts, he got stressed out with the workload and dropped everything and joined the Army in January 2000.
Shortly after war officially broke out in Iraq in March 2003, Collins was deployed there as a part of the First Armor Division and stationed as a squad leader in Baghdad. His job involved engineering and demolition work, as well as overseeing humanitarian projects such as building schools and hospitals and other work to fix up a city that had been ravaged by the war.
The threat of danger was always around, however, and things got tense when rockets occasionally went off near his headquarters, he said. Luckily, no casualties were reported in his squad under his leadership.
"The hardest thing to deal with is, since my time in Iraq, I kind of desensitized myself," Collins said.
Spending months in a war zone and witnessing the harsh realities of Iraq in person while seeing many of his comrades hurt or lost in battle has made him a stronger person emotionally, he explained.
A new perspective
Collins was discharged last July and came back home to North Seattle, an area he has called home all his life. He came away from Iraq with a new perspective on life back home.
"There were a lot of good memories and experiences," he said. "It kind of makes you think about taking things for granted and how good we have it."
As he slowly readjusted to a much more quiet civilian life, he drove past his old stomping grounds at Nathan Hale one December day and saw a familiar sight: high-school kids playing lacrosse.
He approached the group of kids. A few words and pleasantries were exchanged before Collins spoke to a coach observing on the sidelines. Before long he was offered a position as an assistant coach on this year's team.
"They're doing awesome," Collins said of this year's team earlier this season. "They are still learning a lot, and they are getting better every day. When I was in school, it probably took us longer."
When he's not teaching basic lacrosse techniques, he's sharing his experiences with the players, such as stories from his playing days and his days on the battlefield.
"They think it's pretty neat to see [an alumnus] come back," he said. "I tell them how we used to play and the standard that we used to have. I tell them about the military, and they find it fascinating."
Collins' professional plans include working in radio broadcast engineering in the future. For now, however, he is focused on helping the Raiders put together a successful lacrosse campaign. He knows that his leadership is important for the success of the squad.[[In-content Ad]]