Operation Phoenix: 3,500 Miles for Veterans
Photos courtesy of Josh Collins and Bote
In an elite athletic training facility in Florida, Army veteran Josh Collins is training alongside athletes half his age. Pushing himself to the limit and working out four times a day, Collins is preparing for an epic journey that will test his strength, stamina, and determination to the very core.
Tomorrow, March 1st, Collins will begin Operation Phoenix: a 3,500-mile SUP expedition from Texas to the Statue of Liberty in effort to raise money and awareness for veterans. Completing the journey will be the ultimate redemption for the man who, only two years ago, was struggling through the darkest time of his life.
"Life was over and now it's not," Collins said. "That's where the name of the operation came from. I'm rising from the ashes and starting over."
During Collins' extensive career in the US Army Special Forces, he suffered seven traumatic brain injuries (TBI) with the loss of consciousness. However, it was a major concussion during a training accident in September 2013 that finally sent him over the edge.
"The world just came crashing in," Collins said. "The personality and behavior changes were the most extreme. As my kids would say, I just became a monster."
Collins was put on strong medications and also began drinking heavily to cope with his cognitive disabilities, but things only got worse. His family, marriage and life was being torn apart, all the while he struggled to understand and cope with the effects of his brain injuries.
"All these medications begin to play Tetris with your brain," Collins said. "It is like adding kerosene to the fire because you are medicating a damaged brain and it just doesn't work."
To make matters worse, Collins' injuries left him with the nauseating sensation that his world was always moving or as he described it, "permanent sea legs.” Tired of dealing with the negative effects from both his medications and injuries, Collins desperately searched for something that would bring a natural balance back to his life.
One day, Collins attempted to find that balance on a standup paddleboard, and the results proved to be miraculous.
"When I get on a paddleboard, it is the difference between being in a dark room and flipping the lights on," Collins said. "The horizon is suddenly flat again and I don't feel any of the movement when I'm on the water."
Soon his wife bought him a SUP and he quickly found the benefits to be multi-dimensional. SUP not only helped him feel more balanced than being on land, but it also helped relieve his PTSD.
"There is a very therapeutic aspect to it," Collins said. "SUP is a great escape for someone who is having difficulties and is trapped with something in the past."
SUP was the spark he needed to begin rebuilding his life, but he knew countless other veterans were still struggling. Tragically, over 22 veterans take their own lives each day because of the lack of assistance and over-prescription of medication to treat symptoms such as TBI and PTSD.
Collins understood this reality first-hand and decided to make it his life's mission to do something to help. He wanted to increase awareness about veterans' struggles and also raise money for an organization that helped him and many other vets, the Task Force Dagger Foundation.
For an epic cause, he wanted to complete an epic journey, and what’s more epic than paddling self-supported for 3,500 miles?
Once Collins shared his plan on social media, support from family, friends and strangers came flooding in. Bote Paddleboards joined him as his primary sponsor and not only created a custom board for his expedition, but they also made 12 replica boards that will be auctioned off to raise money for vets.
His board will be put to the ultimate test during his trip, when Collins plans to paddle an average of 35 miles a day with rally points every three days. Paddling this distance every day will be an incredible test of Collins' stamina, but one that he welcomes and believes represents life after the military for many veterans.
"Guys leave the military and all of a sudden they are alone and facing all these difficulties they had not before," Collins said. "It can be devastating and my goal is to replicate that with this journey."
This is personal for Collins, who has not only dealt with these feelings himself, but has also had close friends take their own lives. He believes the biggest key for struggling veterans is for them to find a mission or purpose that gives them a sense of importance.
For Collins, there are few things more important than helping his fellow veterans in need. Paddleboarding made a difference in his life, now he will be using SUP to make a difference in the lives of countless others.
"I wanted to do something epic to raise awareness that veterans can recover without the meds," Collins said. "Operation Phoenix is going to break me down and be really tough, but it's going to be like life."
Learn more about Operation Phoenix.
Find out about Josh’s long-term goal, Veteran Voyage 360.
Help Josh raise money to support veterans struggling with TBI and PTSD.