Pad­dling for a cause

Vet raises funds, aware­ness for PTSD, sui­cide

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By CH­ERYL MATTIX

cmat­tix@ce­cil­whig.com

— Re­tired Army Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Delta Force Op­er­a­tor and U.S. Army Ranger Josh Collins picked an unique way to get to town on Sun­day: by pad­dle­board.

This mode of trans­porta­tion was all part of the first leg of Collins’ world jour­ney on a pad­dle­board to raise aware­ness and

CH­E­SA­PEAKE CITY

money for trau­matic brain in­jury, post-trau­matic syn­drome dis­or­der and vet­eran sui­cide.

As he came through the canal stand­ing up on a pad­dle­board at about 5:30 p.m., his wife To­nia met him in her es­cort camper. Both re­ceived a warm wel­come from the crowd of peo­ple who had gath­ered to greet them for their overnight stay in town.

“This is an ab­so­lutely amaz­ing greet­ing on this Fourth of July week­end,” Collins said as he

ad­dressed a group of locals who had gath­ered on the board­walk deck be­hind town hall to await his ar­rival. “Its fit­ting that this is In­de­pen­dence Day week­end and I’m fight­ing for in­de­pen­dence from all these pre­scrip­tion drugs that are given to those suf­fer­ing from a trau­matic brain in­jury.”

Collins, 47, who re­tired in 2008 af­ter serv­ing 20 years in the U.S. Army, sus­tained a to­tal of seven brain in­juries while in the mil­i­tary and two more af­ter he got out.

“He is bet­ter now, but we have to be very care­ful he doesn’t get any more, which could be very harm­ful,” his wife To­nia said.

Many of his pre­vi­ous in­juries were blast-re­lated while serv­ing, she said.

Collins had been de­ployed sev­eral times to Iraq, Afghanistan and Bos­nia while serv­ing his coun­try and ended up with mul­ti­ple trau­matic brain in­juries (TBIs), driv­ing him into a per­sonal strug­gle with pre­scrip­tion pills and self-med­i­ca­tion with al­co­hol, he ex­plained.

He cred­its the Task Force Dag­ger Foun­da­tion with help­ing save his life by pro­vid­ing for his fam­ily while he was hos­pi­tal­ized for long-term TBI ther­apy. He was able to use nat­u­ral sources and treat­ment op­tions that al­lowed him to stop his re­liance on a cock­tail of pre­scrip­tion drugs.

“This is very, very real,” Collins said. “There are 7,000 guys who need help now, and a lot of them are Viet­nam vets.”

“I’m most wor­ried about the guys who are still serv­ing,” Collins added, point­ing out that 22 vet­er­ans a day com­mit sui­cide.

Af­ter Collins left the hospi­tal, his

wife bought him a stand-up pad­dle­board for recre­ational ther­apy, which he said helped him heal.

“Ev­ery­thing holds still when I’m on the wa­ter,” he said.

Hav­ing nearly lost it all, Collins is now deter­mined to help other vet­er­ans try­ing to sur­vive af­ter com­bat. That’s why he launched this project dubbed “Vet­eran Voy­age 360” to travel by pad­dle­board around the world to raise $22 mil­lion for Task Force Dag­ger Foun­da­tion.

His jour­ney be­gan March 5 in Cor­pus Christi, Texas, and will end in New York City on July 23. That’s just the first leg of the voy­age, the re­main­der is yet to be an­nounced. He’s call­ing the East Coast por­tion of the trip “Op­er­a­tion Phoenix.”

Many vis­i­tors who chat­ted with To­nia Collins on the dock as she waited for her hus­band’s ar­rival Sun­day about 5:30 p.m. pulled cash out of their wal­lets and hand-

ed it to her. The foun­da­tion also has an on­line raf­fle at www.task­forcedag­ger.org for a Bote pad­dle­board with the pur­chase of a $20 ticket that goes to the foun­da­tion.

Vis­i­tors on both sides of Ch­e­sa­peake City watched Collins pad­dle un­der the Ch­e­sa­peake City Bridge with the guid­ance of his crew in ac­com­pa­ny­ing boats. They cheered, waved flags and took pic­tures and video with their phones.

Jake Cooper, 12, and his brother Matt, 10, wel­comed Collins to town by pre­sent­ing him with a gift bas­ket and a $200 check from the town. The Cooper boys’ mother, Mary, works as a billing clerk in town hall.

“We’re proud Amer­i­cans,” said Matt Cooper of their mo­ti­va­tion to par­tic­i­pate in the cer­e­mony.

Valerie Walls pre­sented Collins with a check from the Ch­e­sa­peake City VFW post and re­tired U.S. Navy Capt. Ed Sch­weizer and his wife, Sue, hosted the cou­ple at

Doc Smithers Bed & Break­fast, which they own and op­er­ate on Bo­hemia Av­enue. Ch­e­sa­peake Inn hosted the cou­ple and their team for din­ner.

To­nia Collins said her hus­band is en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence, al­though it has its bumps.

“Our sched­ule has prob­a­bly gone awry about 90 per­cent of the time, but we’ve learned to go with it and we are ac­tu­ally ahead of sched­ule right now,” she said.

Weather is the great un­known and big­gest rea­son that plans have to change at the last minute, she ex­plained, not­ing that when they left Texas they en­coun­tered floods, rain and wind.

“He lost the fin­ger nails on his left hand dur­ing the first week be­cause of the pres­sure on his hands. But, he just doesn’t quit. He’s an in­spi­ra­tion,” To­nia said.

The cou­ple lives in Mer­ritt Is­land, Fla., near Co­coa Beach and they have four grown chil­dren.

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY CH­ERYL MATTIX

A group of well-wish­ers wel­come vet­eran Josh Collins as he pad­dle­boards in the C&D Canal to­ward the yacht basin Sun­day.

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