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Veteran’s Stand-Up Paddleboard Brings Balance to Life
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Thursday, January 13, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Josh Collins spent years feeling like the world around him was spinning, thanks to vertigo caused by traumatic brain injuries and other injuries he’d suffered during 20 years as a Special Operations combat veteran in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia.

He was diagnosed with chronic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease common in football players who have had too many concussions. He fought through extreme headaches, fatigue and disorientation, inner ear damage, right eye nerve palsy and vertigo from a compressed cervical spine.

The prescriptions his doctor gave him were not enough—he also self-medicated with alcohol. And in 2014 he spent three months at a polytrauma rehabilitation center in Tampa, Fla.

But the world stood still when he got on a stand-up paddleboard during an outing sponsored by the Veterans Administration. In response, his wife Tonia gave him a paddleboard and Collins decided to use it to make a difference.

In 2016 he embarked on a 3,500-mile journey by paddleboard from Corpus Christi, Texas, to the Statue of Liberty in New York City. The idea, he said, was to bring awareness about traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress and to show fellow veterans how nonpharmaceutical treatments like magnetic resonance therapy and infrared light technology could help in recovery.

Collins made another trip in 2019 along the Alaskan Coast, and now he wants to do one along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to bring awareness to Hyperbarics of Sun Valley, which applied oxygen treatments towards his recovery.

“I want to bring awareness about Hyperbarics’ oxygen treatments,” he said, pointing to an MRI picture that he said indicated that oxygen treatments had helped smooth over the holes in his brain.

Collins embarked on his first paddleboard trip in 2016, paddling between 30 and 40 miles a day and spending between 10 and 12 hours a day on the water as his wife followed in an RV.

“My hands got the brunt of it—they hurt all day,” said Collins. “When the winds and waves struck, I had to remember the people back on land, the people cheering me on, the people who need to hear.”

Collins dropped out of high school at 16 but went on to finish his degree and become an officer at 22, participating in Special Operations in the U.S. Army and as Airborne Ranger. 

Over the years, he suffered six documented traumatic brain injuries with loss of consciousness in explosive blasts, parachute landing falls and training.

He retired in December 2008 and spent the next several years continuing to support the military as a contractor. But he sustained a seventh major concussion, along with a fractured nose, ribs and cervical spine compression while leading an elite Special Operations training exercise in 2013 that put him over the edge.

He had a seizure that sent him hurtling down the stairs into a wall. One of his pupils was the size of a pin point, while the other was as big as a marble. And at night a REM sleep behavior disorder caused him to act out violently—one night he punched and choked his wife.

He had two dozen surgeries from the chest up, but still he suffered. And the combination of prescription drugs and alcohol he used to self-medicate tore his family apart.

“That I was angry doesn’t even begin to describe it,” he said. “I had a brain that wasn’t working right—I’d get emotional and be uncontrollable. I wanted to be a businessman again, I wanted to read again. I wanted to leave the gas station and not go the wrong way. Finally, someone told me: Your wife’s going to be changing your diaper by the end of the year if you don’t get help. All I wanted was my wife back, my life back.”

He found that with his paddleboarding. On the 140th day after he stepped off the Corpus Christi sand he arrived at the Statue of Liberty where he was greeted by members of the U.S. Coast Guard and FDNY and presented with a flag that flew over the World Trade Center in honor of his voyage.

He’d raised nearly $200,000 for Task Force Dagger Foundation, a U.S. Army Special Operations Command that provides assistance to wounded and ill members and their families.

His 750-mile ocean paddleboard trip from Port Townsend, Wash., to Ketchikan, Alaska, was part of the Race to Alaska, or what organizers say is like the Iditarod on a boat with a chance of drowning, squalls, killer whales, being run down by a freighter or eaten by a grizzly bear. After paddling 300 miles in 33-degree temperatures in waves that were five time bigger than those near Florida, he crawled up on a rock to sleep.

Even though he wore a spandex wet suit covered by a dry suit, he somehow managed to get a little cut and sepsis set in. Collins spent the night forcing himself to yawn every 15 minutes, fearful that, if he went to sleep, he might not wake up.

Collins did make it through the night and in August he took part in 40 oxygen treatments at Hyperbarics in Sun Valley after a friend told him about the therapy the organization has been providing for veterans.

While here, he got COVID, But he says the oxygen therapy helped him recover faster than he might have, otherwise. In addition, he says the tinnitus in his left ear is gone, he is able to overlook things that would make him anxious, he feels like his head is clearer and his heart no longer races.

In grateful response, he’s eyeing a 3,745-mile paddleboard expedition down the Missouri and Mississippi River that would take him through towns like Bismarck, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. This time he wants to focus attention on what Hyperbarics oxygen therapy can do, as well as other non-pharmaceutical treatments for chronic traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.

“I just decided to go for a paddle instead of a run,” he says today of his decision to take up a paddle years ago. “Paddleboarding was one of my paths back to life.”


 

 

 

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