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Traumatic Brain Injury and the Art of Paddling

Collins enjoys stand-up paddle boarding for how it helps him with TBI. His service dog, Charlie, likes it too. (Courtesy Photo by U.S. Army Special Operations veteran Josh Collins) Collins enjoys stand-up paddle boarding for how it helps him with TBI. His service dog, Charlie, likes it too. (Courtesy Photo by U.S. Army Special Operations veteran Josh Collins)

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I am on a new mission: to raise awareness about treating traumatic brain injury, or TBI, in the most effective way possible. My world on dry land was always moving. But, when I stood on a stand-up paddle board for the first time, the constant moving just stopped. The horizon was steady for me while the water movement under the board reduced the balance and vision challenges I have due to TBI. For me, getting on a paddle board also represents challenges a lot of combat veterans deal with when they return home and are faced with adjusting to daily life or recovering from injuries.

I deployed for operations in Bosnia, Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and to other places around the world. While serving with Army Special Operations, I experienced four documented TBIs with loss of consciousness from explosive blasts. I sustained two TBIs by parachute landing falls, and one TBI from combat training. After I retired in 2008, I continued to support the military as a contractor. It was in 2013 when I sustained two more TBIs in the same week, which was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It was devastating.

My symptoms include several physical balance issues; cervical spine compression; vestibular ear damage in both ears from blasts; eye nerve damage and double vision, which I’ve had treated surgically; tremors from early onset of Parkinsonism; cognitive decline; stuttering; severe attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD; and memory loss.

U.S. Army Special Operations veteran Josh Collins sustained several traumatic brain injuries over his career. Collins, shown here with a supporter he met along the way, is on a mission is to raise awareness about TBI and promote resources for nonprofit organizations that help service members and veterans like him. (Courtesy Photo by U.S. Army Special Operations veteran Josh Collins)U.S. Army Special Operations veteran Josh Collins sustained several traumatic brain injuries over his career. Collins, shown here with a supporter he met along the way, is on a mission is to raise awareness about TBI and promote resources for nonprofit organizations that help service members and veterans like him. (Courtesy Photo by U.S. Army Special Operations veteran Josh Collins)

My friends and family saw the changes in my personality. I was caught in an endless cycle of anger. It was so frustrating to drive 60 miles in the wrong direction, or to show up somewhere and not know why I was there – or how I got there. I used prescribed medications and self-medicated with alcohol, which caused me to become reckless. I reached the limits of my ability to function.

Returning to normal life can be difficult when you’re suffering from invisible wounds. Thankfully, I have family and friends who pulled me out of the quicksand, enabling me to receive treatment at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida. My first extreme paddling voyage began soon after those three months of treatment. I dared to live again while skimming along the water, in a way that's bigger than me.

I began my first extreme paddle board journey in 2016 as a way to help others like me. I thought taking on something physically intense and never quitting could turn people’s attention to the topic of TBI. After all, helping others is why many people join the military in the first place.

I started out with a tent and five-day supply of water and food. I ended up traveling 2,632 miles on a 14-foot paddle board. I focused on an estimated 1.7 million paddle strokes – one at a time. I averaged 28 miles a day during 94 days of paddling while my wife, Tonia, drove 10,435 miles along the way. I camped out overnight and restocked supplies every few days. People in boats or on paddle boards came up to me almost daily asking what I needed. I usually needed water, but the connections with hundreds of people may have been more essential.

I made it to the Statue of Liberty and received a water salute from the U.S. Coast Guard. “Operation Phoenix” took me five months – 140 days – to travel from South Texas to New York’s Battery Park. My 20 years in the U.S. Army and several years supporting special operations as a contractor were fulfilling. I’m proud of my service, but equally proud that after this particular journey, I hung my paddle board in the New York Fire Department’s boat house – just blocks from where more than 400 first responders lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.

Today, I'm not the same person I was two years ago. I don't stutter or get lost every time I leave a gas station. While everyone’s journey with TBI is unique, we all experience a disruption with normal brain function. My paddle board voyage helped me find myself now that combat is over.

My advice to those who think they might have some brain issues is to listen to the people around you. Observe how your family and friends react. Your mission is recovery. This fight is just as big as the one you fought overseas. Make learning a habit for daily life. Doctors can help you but you have to work every day to heal yourself.

Here are some ideas:

  • Learn to do three-dimensional puzzles that can help you work on spatial intelligence. Practice these once a day. It took me a year to learn one with an instructional DVD. This exercise helps me with how I think and has improved my memory.
  • The motor cortex is a great way to tap into your brain - do things that involve hand-eye coordination. Try switching hands for using chopsticks, writing, and playing a musical instrument.
  • Watch “A Head for the Future” videos about other TBI stories, and access resources to recognize and recover from brain injury. You've got to get help. It's your brain.

Finally, please reach out to another veteran. Connection has been part of the cure and continues to work for me.

Josh Collins is a retired U. S. Army sergeant first class who served with Special Operations Units. Paddle boarding is his current mission for raising TBI awareness and resources to support nonprofit organizations benefiting service members and veterans. This month Collins will try to complete 300 miles on a stand-up paddle board for a second time through the Everglades of Florida. This summer he will begin a 750-mile race to Alaska called “Operation Torrent.”

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