NEW TAMPA - Keith Collins is proud of who he is: an American and a Marine Corps veteran who fought in the Vietnam War.
His battle wounds were many - including shattered vertebrae in his back, a neck injury that required surgical fusion and a hand mangled to the point it required reconstruction. For a time he spent his days in a wheelchair.
But Collins, a New Tampa resident, has never been one to dwell on his past. Instead, he's concentrated his efforts on paying forward his good fortune of survival and subsequent success in the workplace.
His notable acts to benefit the lives of fellow veterans were recognized by the Disabled American Veterans recently when he was awarded the distinction of being a Community Hero during a ceremony at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. Clearwater resident and Marine Corps veteran Tom Howell received a similar award.
As a home builder and CEO/President of Tampa Residential, Collins uses and shares with other builders his "Freedom House" universal design principles in constructing affordable houses for wounded veterans.
Collins estimates that in 18 years of partnering with other home builders, nearly 2,300 such homes have been constructed throughout the country to accommodate veterans and others with special needs.
Creating a comfortable living environment as opposed to a clinical setting is key to helping disabled veterans gain back both their independence and dignity, he said.
"In the real estate business everyone is looking to make a maximum profit, but we're not," Collins said. "We want the homes to be affordable to buy and maintain, including the cost of utilities."
Over the years he's also lobbied for local and national legislation aimed at improving the lives of veterans.
In addition, Collins said he always jumps at the chance to share his knowledge of the many grants that are available to veterans and how they need to go about getting them.
"I probably spend 50 percent of my time counseling to veterans," he said. "I'm like a walking encyclopedia."
But Collins said his biggest passion is getting homeless vets get off the streets. It is not uncommon for people to call him at home at night asking for his assistance in finding lodging for individuals and families who have no place to live.
Collins recalled two phone calls that especially tugged at his heart strings: One was about a homeless single mom with young children and another regarded a laid-off father of four who, along with his wife and kids, were facing eviction from their home just days before Christmas.
In both instances, Collins and his wife, whom he preferred not to name, came to their rescue.
The couple picked up the tab for the mother's week-long hotel stay with her children and provided them with food. They also made arrangements with a pharmacy to waive fees for medicine her sick children desperately needed and, through Collins' contacts, found a place for them to live.
For the family on the edge of losing their home, Collins enlisted the pro bono services of a lawyer friend of his who was able to delay the family's eviction and have the home's electricity restored.
In the meantime, Collins found a job for the father at the James A. Haley Hospital.
Andy Marshall, a national service officer supervisor with the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, who presented Collins with the award, is impressed with Collins' good deeds on behalf of disabled veterans.
"He's done that kind of thing at least a couple of other times, too," Marshall said. "He's given a lot back to this community and that's what this award is all about."
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at JoyceCMcKenzie@gmail.com.