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Veteran travels 3.5K miles on paddle board to raise awareness

By ESTHER HACKLEMAN | Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Texas (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 5, 2016

Josh Collins will brave the South Texas sun, untamed Gulf Coast swells and unpredictable weather as makes his solo trip to Galveston on nothing but a paddle board.

And that trip Saturday is just the first of 12 legs he will take on. He plans to navigate the Gulf Coast, around Florida and up the Atlantic Ocean coast to raise awareness for the rate of suicide among service members.

The 20-year Army veteran who survived tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia will finish his trip in New York City at the Statue of Liberty, traveling 3,500 miles - just him on a paddle board.

Those military tours did not come without pain. The traumatic brain injuries, nerve damage and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered distorted his lifestyle, family and will to live, he said. He began to drown in prescriptions and self-medication, but that all changed when he picked up a paddle board.

"When I get on the water and it's rolling underneath my feet, it's a sanctuary for me," Collins said.

Reborn from the salt and sea, Collins, 46, will begin his mission, Operation Phoenix, in the hopes of raising awareness of alternative therapy options for veterans.

Collins' mission stems from a passion he and his family share for those trapped in the depression he once knew.

"It's really terrific to see him come back because we almost lost him," Collins' wife, Tonia, said, her voice cracking with emotion. "Never give up on (veterans). You see that happen too much, and that's when we loose so many."

Josh Collins, whose short-term memory loss was so severe that he would get confused just backing his vehicle out of his driveway, has recovered drastically in the two years he has worked with Task Force Dagger Foundation, which supports veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

"As his short-term memory improved, his confidence improved," Task Force Dagger Foundation Founder Keith David said. "Josh has found his mission, his purpose and his focus."

His voyage, if successful, will shatter the current world record by 2,000 miles. It benefits the foundation. On average, Collins plans to travel 30 to 35 miles each day if the weather permits, stopping to camp along the shore. The adventurer will travel with food and water strapped on his Bote paddle boards, with a carrying capacity of about 400 pounds. Collins wanted to secure his record with a more impressive number to beat so he is starting it in Corpus Christi.

Collin's financial goal of raising $22 million to represent the 22 veterans who take their lives daily dwarfs his personal goal of encouraging veterans to get the help they need.

"The fight is not over," said Collins, who is from Merritt Island, Florida. "Our mission as vets continues here. Spreading the word about the challenges we face at home is critical."

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©2016 the Corpus Christi Caller-Times (Corpus Christi, Texas)

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