What if tomorrow, first thing in the morning, instead of breakfast and cruising the Internet, you paddled a boat and didn’t stop for a break for over 10 hours straight, until the ink black of a Louisiana bayou night set in?
What if you kept going against strong flood currents, torrential thunder showers, enthusiastic interest from Louisiana alligators, and onslaughts from mosquitoes that qualify with the FAA as light aircraft?
What if the next day you got up and did exactly the same thing, and the next day, and the next, for 140 consecutive days in a row to cover 3,500 miles—all the way from Corpus Christie, Texas, to the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York City?
If you did find yourself doing these things, then you might be retired Delta Force operator and Ranger, Josh Collins. At the time of this writing, Josh is already into his tenth day of his epic trek along the Texas and Louisiana Intracoastal Waterway to New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico, around the Florida Keys, and up the East Coast. Destination: Lady Liberty.
Me, I had the privilege to serve with Josh in the Delta Force for a number of years. I was in a terminal struggle to just remain average in the tiny cistern containing some of America’s finest and most lethal combat prowess. Josh, on the other hand, rose above the average bear and became one of the great contributors to the Unit in terms of ratcheting up standards, applying his forward thinking in new tactics, techniques, and procedures that remain his legacy to this day.
Josh on an assault vehicle behind a MK-19 40mm high-velocity grenade launcher
Were that not enough, Josh was pound-for-pound the best boxer/hand-to-hand fighter in the building, a distinction that he would uphold for all of his years in the building. I soon learned that what I thought was a formidable boxing workout was in fact unrealistic once Josh came to our training ring. All the best fighters in the unit gathered to train with Josh, including the American badass himself, Dr. Dale Comstock.
I recall distinctly working focus mitts with Josh. He would routinely transition them from eye level to up over our heads, making us punch up high, all the while taunting us: “Come on, come on, knock out the big man. Anyone can curb-stomp the little man, now knock out the big man!” A sobering dose of reality from Josh: Not all your opponents are created equal.
Josh left the Unit to take a commission and soon after became a platoon leader in the 75th Ranger Regiment. I retired from Delta and took on contract work at the Nevada test site. By design, the test site is an excellent place for military Tier-One units to go and train. Eventually Josh would take his Ranger platoon there for a down-and-dirty training episode.
I teamed up one day with a colleague of mine, “Soju,” who is also a former Unit brother and from Josh’s own B Squadron. We set out to find and visit with Josh. We located a cluster of tents with a Ranger standing guard. “We’re looking for Josh,” I ventured to the Ranger guard. The Ranger responded in part with contemplation-revealing eye blinks and responded, “Lieutenant Josh Collins is in that tent, sir.”
Soju and I entered the indicated tent and scanned the interior for our brother Josh. The tent was a disarray of sleeping death—Rangers strewn about in various contortions of slumber…and there on a cot lay the soundly snoozing Josh, flat on his back with feet crossed and his hands in his pockets. Josh would have to be wrestled from his comfy cot and taught a lesson about maintaining situational awareness at all times, and Soju and I were to be the ones to do it, by thunder!
I paused—a mandatory pause one makes just prior to shouldering such a commitment. I did not feel entirely unlike Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, having just launched his attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station. “I fear all I have done is to waken a sleeping giant.” But it was too late. The torpedoes had already been dropped, and there was no recalling them.
We upended the cot and the jolted Josh hit the floor. We descended upon him in a feeble attempt to pin him into submission. Josh’s failure to subscribe to pain compliance left Soju and I soundly throttled and breathing the air of humility. “Let’s go get some coffee,” Josh invited. As we brushed down from the dirt of the scuffle, I noted the incredulous stares of awakened Rangers, no doubt puzzled over who the morons were that attempted to rile their vaunted PL.
Coffee talk ensued with Josh as we eagerly sought to catch up adequately with one of our own, cut from a very tiny piece of cloth. Josh returned to his men and we shook hands with a couple of his Rangers, exchanging comments. His men spoke highly of him, to such a degree that I am confident I have not heard such praise before for a man sporting a butter bar (first lieutenant rank) on his patrol cap.
Josh took his Rangers to Afghanistan on several deployments. Through the course of it all, coupled by a multitude of events while in Delta, Josh, like many of us, suffers from a wicked bout of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Josh in Afghanistan.
The afflictions took a heavy toll on Josh’s physical and mental condition, to the extent that his network of brothers took control and brought Josh to the saving grace of institutionalized treatment for many months. In the course of his out-patient recovery efforts, Josh came to know the calming and stabilizing effects of waterborne excursions, specifically with a paddle board. For Josh, equilibrium maladies he suffered on land became righted on a paddle board, and his horizon once again became steady and true.
Recognizing that so many other veterans are cursed with the same post-traumatic plight, and so few have come to know the level of recovery that Josh has been blessed with, he resolved to make the greatest impact on the situation he could. Making a profound impact on a situation is something Josh has been doing well since the day he came into the military.
Enter stage left: Operation Phoenix, a 140-day journey across 3,500 miles to set a Guinness Book world record feat of strength and endurance accomplished by no man before…and raise over $22,000,000 in pledged funds devoted to the betterment of veterans of combat in the Middle East theaters of operations.
Josh Collins rests in an RV park at the moment with his wife and operations manager, Tonia Collins. Tonia shuttles their RV from launch to landing each day, helping Josh to recover in the evenings and make him ready to get up and make the doughnuts the next day. On some legs of the journey, Josh packs enough food and water to last him up to four days, rallying over night (RON) on the banks of bayous and other waterborne communications routes.
He packs a gat, folks…a .22 caliber Glock, for protection against fauna that lurks in the waters and hinterland. Once already Josh has been bumped by an alligator in Port Arthur, Texas. A clean headshot from a .22 Long Rifle will send a gator resting with the fishes. Snakes are the other concern, but even the poisonous ones are not at all aggressive unless they are engaged in a mating ritual or trying to come up from underwater to get some air. Neither situation should be of concern to Josh.
Word travels fast, especially in Cajun country—the French Triangle of southern Louisiana—and especially since I am posting news, photos, and video clips of Josh’s journey to the Cajun French Facebook page, with over 18,000 Louisiana French-speaking members.
At the moment, Josh’s route to the east is the revered Bayou Teche running east/southeast, steering him to the ICW that will take him through Houma, ultimately to New Orleans. Locals from Bayou Teche come out to meet him, waving as he passes by, offering him cold drinks and “plate lunches”— not hardly doable, but the gesture is genuine and very well received.
I’m part of Josh’s support cell. I track his progress via satellite photos and the GPS beacon he runs on his boat. I provide route reconnaissance and feedback on potential obstacles, launch and landing site recommendations, and tide/currents/weather information as best as I’m able. For that alone I am thankful for the extensive maritime experience and waterborne training I received during my Special Forces career.
I think by now I have written about 10 essays on the amazing men I’ve had the honor to serve with, all of them having passed away in the line of duty. It’s all well and good to attend memorial services for the departed, to hear great things and to say great things about what sterling humans they were in life. But it is a far greater thing to pay earnest tribute to a devout American patriot while he still draws a warrior’s breath.
I present Josh Collins and Operation Phoenix. Fair winds and following seas, Josh.