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Posted: Friday, June 17, 2016 12:00 pm

BEAUFORT — With 2,032.4 miles under his belt as of Wednesday, having reached Carteret County, retired U.S. Army Special Operations Delta Force operator and Army Ranger Josh Collins is over halfway to his goal of paddleboarding from Corpus Christi, Texas, to New York City. 

This 3,500-mile journey, which Mr. Collins is calling Operation Pheonix, is part of an even larger voyage to complete the first nonstop, unassisted, manpowered voyage by small vessel around the world, called Veteran Voyage 360. This voyage is over 24,000 nautical miles or more than 27,619 standard miles, and Mr. Collins intends to make it in under 18 months. 

Mr. Collins’ journey began March 5, and he intends to make it to the Statue of Liberty by Saturday, July 23. He’s making this journey over the water to raise both awareness for servicemembers with post traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and funds for the Task Force Dagger Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping wounded, ill or injured U.S. Special Operations Command members and their families.  

Information on this journey, including a GPS map updated regularly with Mr. Collins’ position, is available at the website veteranvoyage360.com. Mr. Collins is himself a wounded warrior who received assistance from the Dagger Foundation. He sustained nine TBI’s during his military service and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.

Mr. Collins arrived in Carteret County on Tuesday, paddling in from Swansboro through Bogue Sound until he reached the public water access on Radio Island. Wednesday morning, after the early thunderstorm had broken up, Mr. Collins checked the tide tables to determine when would be best for him to continue on his journey. 

“The stretch I’m on right now is the most challenging,” he said. “We’ve had weather and will continue to have weather. That means paddling into the night, against the current.” 

Mr. Collins said he intends to paddle another 180 miles and reach Virginia Beach, Va., by Saturday. 

Mr. Collins said this journey is the most challenging task he’s taken on to date. 

“Out there I experience all of the environment,” he said. “The heat, wind, rain, physical and mental strain … when I stop, my hands hurt and are swollen from holding the paddle all day.”

To keep himself going, Mr. Collins puts himself in a specific mindset. He said he sees this journey as a mission. 

“Anytime you have a strong sense of purpose, you can achieve anything and work through the fatigue and pain,” he said. 

The support Mr. Collins has received also helps. He said when he first started out, people would meet him at his rally points, listed on the Veteran Voyage 360 website, saying they support him and his efforts. 

“Now they know me by name,” Mr. Collins said. “They’re cheering out, ‘Go Josh!’ It’s really encouraging.” 

Mr. Collins was inspired to take on this challenge from his experience overcoming his injuries and stress and the help he received from the Dagger Foundation. According to a press release from the Dagger Foundation, Mr. Collins was deployed several times to Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. 

“At first, Josh had a rough time dealing with his injuries,” the foundation said. “While taking prescribed medications and self-medicating with alcohol, he eventually reached his limits and ability to function and was hospitalized for sustained TBI therapy.” 

After his hospitalization, Mr. Collins’ wife, Tonia, bought him a stand-up paddleboard for recreational therapy. The Dagger Foundation also gave support and assistance to the couple.

“The task force is an organization that was there for me in my darkest hour,” Mr. Collins said. According to the press release, the foundation provided for his family during his time in the hospital and helped him find treatment options for his TBIs to stop his reliance on prescription drugs.  

Looking for a way to inspire other people to make a comeback from TBIs and post-traumatic stress, Mr. Collins decided to take on this journey. If Mr. Collins succeeds, he will have set a new Guinness World Record for the longest journey by stand up paddleboard. 

One thing Mr. Collins emphasized is his concern about the stigma that comes with referring to post-traumatic stress as a “disorder.” He said those who are diagnosed with PTSD have to put it on job applications when asked if they have any psychological problems. 

“It definitely can be (a disorder), but it’s not for everyone,” Mr. Collins said. “This is one of the reasons guys may not get help. They say, ‘I might not get security clearance, and I’ll lose my job.’ I think we need to be less concerned with the ‘Rambos’ of society and more with the clear and present threats. We haven’t experienced a ‘Rambo’ incident in a long, long time.” 

Mr. Collins also said while prescription medications are provided for PTSD, medical science is still working on treatments for brain injuries. 

“What happens to a damaged brain while you’re dosing it with prescriptions for PTSD?” Mr. Collins said. “From my personal experience, it only makes things worse, which is why I stopped.” 

While Mr. Collins has been paddling along the East Coast, his wife has been following on land in the couple’s recreational vehicle. She meets with him at various points along the way, although sometimes they’re not always able to find one another. 

Ms. Collins said she thinks her husband is “a true inspiration to others,” encouraging other TBI and PTSD sufferers like himself. 

“You have to take control of your own life, your own destiny,” Ms. Collins said. 

To raise funds for the Dagger Foundation, Mr. Collins has received several sponsors. Donations are also being accepted online at the website crowdrise.com/veteranvoyage360. According to the website, there has been $117,647 donated toward the $22 million goal. Mr. Collins said that when sponsorships are added, it’s about $150,000. 

Mr. Collins also has a Facebook page for his journey at facebook.com/veteranvoyage360. He also has a Twitter account, @OPPHX1. 

More information on the Task Force Dagger Foundation is available at the foundation’s website, taskforcedagger.org

Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email mike@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt. 

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