Army Veteran has New Mission: Paddleboarding from Texas to New York

Paddleboard in the surf (Getty Image)
Paddleboard in the surf (Getty Image)

When Josh Collins is on dry land, he feels like he's at sea. Walls move, as if they are rolling in the waves. Floors tilt, as if they are the deck of boat.

During seven deployments to Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, Collins, a former U.S. Army Delta Force captain, sustained injuries to his brain, spine, inner ear and eyes that cause chronic balance and vision problems.

When Collins was undergoing therapy two years ago, his wife bought him a paddleboard. The first time he tried it, he got his equilibrium back. He discovered that when he is on the water, he feels like he's on dry land.

"My world is always shifting, like I'm a sailor," he said. "But when I'm on the board, everything holds still. The horizon is stable. I'm in rhythm with the motion of floating and paddling. It's my sanctuary."

Paddleboarding not only became Collins' passion but also a means of coping with the lingering damage from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, ending his dependency on prescription medications and alcohol, and eliminating suicidal thoughts.

After years of special operations combating terrorism, Collins has embarked on a new mission as a veteran. He intends to set a world record by stand-up paddleboarding 3,500 miles from Corpus Christi, Texas, to New York City. He's approaching the halfway point in his five-month voyage as he travels north along the South Florida coastline. Keep an eye out for the solo paddler wearing an olive-green hat atop a camouflage-colored, 14-foot Bote board.

Collins, 46, who grew up in southwest Miami-Dade County, was at the Miami Marine Stadium last weekend for the Orange Bowl Paddle Championships, where he was honored for serving his country. He told the crowd about the goals of his odyssey -- to raise awareness and money for veterans who come home and ache as he did from the war still raging in their broken brains.

Collins is on a journey of self-discovery after nearly losing his mind. Eight concussions during his career -- most caused by bomb blasts -- changed him.

"My purpose is to refind myself," he said last week during a break in his route. "We think brain injury and we automatically think forgetfulness and loss of motor functions, but our personality and behavior are in our brain as well. We've seen football players become demented and depressed and kill themselves because of brain damage from all the hits. Our veterans are going through the same torment. Each day, 22 vets commit suicide."

While paddling through the bayous of Louisiana and down the Gulf Coast of Florida, Collins has had plenty of time to think.

"Out there, you can scream and nobody can hear you," he said. "I'm figuring out who I am today because I'm not the same person I was. I'm trying to quiet the storm in my head and sort through the mess. It's like putting a puzzle together, but all the pieces are marbles."

He's not doing it to be a hero, because there's not much glory attached to paddling 10 to 14 hours per day, an average of 30 to 40 miles if the wind and current don't reduce his progress to a crawl. His feet are wet. His shoulders hurt. His skin is glazed with sunscreen, sweat and saltwater.

He's got a cooler with food and water on the board -- he's constantly munching on trail mix -- plus an extra paddle, VHF radio, GPS, personal locator beacons, rain suit and first-aid kits (there were rattlesnakes on the beaches in Texas). He flies two flags -- the Stars and Stripes and one with the logo of the Task Force Dagger Foundation, which supports special operations veterans.

Collins is usually alone, except for the curious alligators, sharks, manatees and dolphins that have accompanied him here and there. Kayakers and other paddleboarders have joined him for stretches, and the Coast Guard escorted him through shipping lanes near Houston. People have come out on boats and docks to offer him food or a warm bed.

His wife, Tonia, drives parallel to his route in their small RV, meeting him at accessible checkpoints and picking him up at the end of each leg. They spend their nights at campgrounds.

They intend to reach their home in Merritt Island by the middle of next week, where they will pause for a couple days before resuming the route up the East Coast. Collins is planning a detour 120 miles upstream on the Potomac River into Washington for a rally, and he anticipates those as his most grueling days.

His goal is to paddle past the Statue of Liberty and finish at New York City's Battery Park on July 23.

Collins enlisted in the Army in 1988 and was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was on the Army's boxing team. He fought in Desert Storm. He became an Army Ranger, then joined the elite Delta Force.

Throughout his tours of duty, he sustained head trauma on parachute landing falls and from the blast waves of explosions.

"You eat a lot of charges," he said, demonstrating how he got blown back or flattened. "Those waves hit you like a two-by-four and leave you black and blue. Imagine what it's doing to the brain. TBI 1/8traumatic brain injury3/8 is the Agent Orange of our generation of soldiers."

Collins' first wife died of leukemia in 2005, and he was a single father of their two children. He married Tonia, who had two kids of her own, before he retired from the Army in 2008. After he sustained a ninth concussion in a fall at home three years ago, symptoms of brain injury got much worse.

"I was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," he said. "I'd wake up at 3 a.m. to a dozen medications and a bottle of wine and kept drinking throughout the day. Functional insanity. I'd get lost driving home. I had panic attacks, which was bizarre for a special ops warrior like me."

Tonia, who was running a brew pub at the time, described Collins as "aggressive, angry, depressed, anti-social and suicidal."

Tonia admitted him into the Tampa VA Hospital's Polytrauma Rehab Center, where he spent three months.

"That saved his life, but then we had to get him off all the medications that made him a zombie, like so many of our veterans who get buried under prescription drugs," she said.

They sought guidance from the Task Force Dagger Foundation and found alternate forms of treatment from brain trauma specialists in Dallas and Long Beach, California. They are spreading the word, and lobbying for more research on injury and prevention by the military. He's getting a service dog, Charlie, who can aid him with balance.

Paddleboarding was Collins' favorite therapy. The world-record trek seemed like a dramatic way to call attention to the plight of veterans and their will to recover. He also dreams of completing a world-record row around the world.

"Josh's new energy and focus amazes me," Tonia said. "He's putting it all on the line, like he did in the war, because this is for the bigger purpose of helping others who are suffering."

Collins has had setbacks: Brutal paddling through storms in Texas ripped up his hands (he lost four fingernails that are growing back). He got hypothermia during a storm in Florida Bay. But he's looking forward to more miles of adventures.

"Hopefully, no shark bites or collisions with oil tankers or getting lost in the Gulfstream," he said. "I'm ready to conquer obstacles again."

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