Operation Phoenix - An Epic Journey: Part 2

BOTE Presents //
Operation Phoenix - An Epic Journey: Part 2

Story: Josh Collins
Photography: Sean Murphy

Traveling the whole Gulf Coast and East Coast all at once was like reading a great novel and the sequel all in one sitting.

VA Beach to DC which was 201 miles in 4 days (38,38,55,70 miles respectively), and upstream against the Chesapeake and then the Potomac. The final 70 miles I was delirious until collapsing on a beach landing training site on Quantico. I slept from 0400-0530am and woke up next to a dead Pelican corpse. I drank the last of my water and ate my final sandwich and continued on another 6 hours until a boat found me on the Potomac closing in on DC and gave me water.

IRONICALLY, this can be the toughest stretch for any Veteran, and that is in getting the help and care they need out of DC, the government. Instead, it is our citizens who take the greatest care for their soldiers and Veterans, and it’s always been that way.

The first 45 days – Mentally and physically exhausting as I pushed the limits, and found new breakthroughs. Both my body and mind adapted. I believe the extreme conditions pushed my brain to develop new neuro pathways and healing in the same way that my body adapted to the extreme physical demands of paddling 30-40 and as far as 60 and 70 miles in a single day. The greatest test of this was the 24-hour distance record attempt across Florida bay to Key West (110 miles) on Day 50.

Learning to live with Nature – There were many areas that I paddled through at “Pucker Factor 9”. All of the Gulf Coast river ways, bayous, swamps, and ICWs were chock full of Gators who would charge into the water once startled. The West Coast Florida bays had plenty of sharks, and there were always bumps in the night! I minimized my time camping to the “Bear” minimum.

The open water bays – I was beached by the wind and storms on 2 bays (Corpus Christie and Pamlico Sound) and pulled out of 2 by safety boat (Apalachicola and Florida Bay). The first time in Corpus Christie on the 1st 3 days made me wonder if I was sane in attempting this along the Gulf Coast. Corpus Christie Bay is where the 2016 wind surfing National championships took place in May this year. The Coast Guard called me off the water early on day 3 when Gale Force winds hit the Bay and after I was blown to shore.

The people – All the new friends. Every step of the way I was greeted on the water by supporters, and who quickly became friends. I heard this question so often, “Is there anything you need today?” I quickly began thinking that if the 330M US citizens reached out to the 24 M Vets and asked them this question just once a month, then every Vet in America would be supported in this way every other day! Also, a sense of being uncared for is the common denominator in most suicide notes. This would solve the problem.

The awareness and Resources Raised – I was hoping that if People see if I can step out and deal with this then they can also. Hope. foothold we have made in awareness, and then resourcing assistance for other Special Operations Vets (many who are still active and fighting these wars) for TBI and PTSD. The current system is broken and simply rout with the over-prescription of drugs. There are much better ways. Medicine is a practice, but that doesn’t negate the “Do no harm” oath. I think it is clear that prescriptions drugs are causing harm as the currently over administered.

Me – how much greater understanding I now have of my limitations and boundaries with TBI, and just how to continue to make improvements in my cognitive function. I found magic out there on the water, and it changed how I see everything.

Tonia – And, as if I needed a reminder in Just how incredibly my beautiful wife Tonia truly is. Who would do what she does in caring for and supporting me. No one may ever know just how tough it was on the road for 5 months and living out of a 240 sf RV and never sleeping the place each night. Most mornings as I would leave, she would still be trying to figure out where we’d be staying next. Sometimes it was a Walmart, but sometimes it was a boat ramp or under a bridge somewhere. She is simply amazing.

The physical pain and exhaustion – and especially the first 45 days of breakdown and adapting to the intense physical load of paddling 8-14 hours every day. After that, there were 2 more distinct and short periods of extreme fatigue that I had to work through. I would rest as best I could and attempt to manage my pace to back off a little. Unfortunately, the seas and weather get a vote, and most often wouldn’t cooperate with my “Easy” day plan. These were some of the worst days of suffering in my life. The sea can be mercilessly unrelenting. She just doesn’t care, and she changes her attitude without warning. If you don’t have a healthy fear, then it’s easy to wind up just another statistic.

Being eaten alive – The bugs. The mosquitos in the Gulf, and the biting flies (especially the Greenheads) on the East Coast.

The fear of failure – I put myself out there publicly to accomplish this mission, but more important than my personal pride was in letting down the hundreds, and then thousands of Vets, or family members of vets who began contacting me to tell me how this was inspiring them, etc…. There was a moment of extreme fatigue at near the 40th day that I thought might have been the end. Searching for inspiration, I actually began to see the faces of soldiers and friends in the water from the past as I paddled who hadn’t made it, and that this was the most compelling reason for me to continue.

Results count. I grew up with this mandate from my mom. I'll continue this fight. We have a long way to go with regard to treatment for TBI. As one who has survived the melee, from multiple Mild TBIs, a host of related brain disorder diagnosis, and most significantly from being over medicated to the point of wanting to end it all, I am here now to advocate for others in their mission of recovery.

Recovery from TBI and PTSD needs to be made first without the meds. There is a place for prescription drugs, but right now they are frontline whereas they should be a secondary treatment after all other therapies have been exhausted. After all, with the vet suicide rate what it is, the obvious failure of the current system of treatment, why would anyone prescribe medications with contraindications of suicidal ideation to someone who is already potentially suicidal?

[As a survivor,] my mission is to encourage and inspire other vets – especially those who are facing down the challenge of living with and adapting to TBIs and PTSD.

I want these vets to know that there are alternative forms of treatment out there, and groups like Task Force Dagger are there for them and their families.

To hell with the stigmas. People need to be aware that our [vets'] missions continue here at home – recovery is perhaps one of the hardest parts of job. Spreading awareness of the challenges we deal with day in and day out – and how hard we and our families work to beat those challenges down – is critical.

To the vets reading this: the only person stopping you is you. Never be afraid to lean on your families, lean on your friends, and lean on folks who want to help - that's where Task Force Dagger comes in. Their mission is to help you – wounded or ill – and to be there for your wives, husbands, children and parents.

The Statue of Liberty in NYC
Josh on his Traveller paddle board with the New York skyline in the distance
The USCG escorting Josh to the Statue of Liberty
Josh paddling next to other veterans on their boats
Corey paddling in NYC with Josh
Josh, Corey and Pete paddling
Josh paddling with his GoPro on his hat
Josh with arms raised, happy that he made it to his final stop
Josh paddling next to the USCG boat
Josh, Corey, and Pete paddling next to a barge
Josh with his American flag on his board paddling toward his final stop
Closeup of Josh paddling with the NYC skyline in the background
Josh paddling toward the statue of Liberty
Josh being picked up and greeted by veterans on a USCG ship
Other paddlers joining Josh in the final stretch to the statue of Liberty
Josh raising his hands in victory aboard a USCG ship
Pete, Josh, and Corey celebrating the completion of the journey

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Suggested Accessories Shown

Traveller Paddle Boards

Training and expedition paddling are this board's forte. The Traveller Paddle Board's sleek and slim design paired with lightweight epoxy construction make it the perfect for going the distance.