Episode 13 of the Beneath the Surface Podcast is one that’ll pull at your heartstrings while making you want to take on the world as Corey and Sean talk about one of their biggest projects ever, Operation Phoenix. Bringing Josh Collins into the studio virtually, Corey and Sean take a walk down memory lane when BOTE got on board to support Josh in his long distance paddle boarding mission in 2015.
After an extensive military career and many traumatic brain injuries, Josh found himself at a crossroads of either becoming grim veteran statistic or persevering through his pain. With next to no paddle boarding experience, Josh turns a crazy idea of paddling halfway across the country into a reality he couldn’t imagine himself, and the BOTE team was there for him every step of the way.
COMING AT YOU DIRECT, FROM THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, TO THE CENTER OF EVERYWHERE.
Who's In The Episode
Lead Designer, Co-Founder, and CEO at BOTE, Corey Cooper is a licensed engineer hailing from Auburn University. Corey is the pioneer of the DarkRoom, assisting with the design of the machinery, concepting the layout and ultimately developing the workflow used in DarkRoom production. Corey’s passion for this project is so strong that on any given day, regardless of how busy things are at BOTE, you will often find Corey working in the DarkRoom.
Sean Murphy is the Director of Photography at BOTE and a world-renowned photographer based in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. After spending most of his career based in Los Angeles, shooting for brands like Adidas, Red Bull, and Toyota, just to name a few, Sean moved back to the Redneck Riviera. You can find Sean capturing gritty America and spontaneous moments that translate into visually stunning photography.
Josh Collins served over 20 years in the United State Army, including time at the 82nd Airborne, 75th Ranger Regiment, and 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, before retiring in 2008. While serving, he suffered several traumatic brain injuries and in 2015, he knew he had to get his life back before he became just another grim veteran statistic. Operation Phoenix took Josh halfway across the country via paddle board, raising awareness for traumatic brain injuries and PTSD of active duty and military veterans. Josh continues to raise awareness today through paddle boarding.
“How much greater understanding I now have of my limitations and boundaries with TBI, and just how to continue to make improvements in my cognitive function. I found magic out there on the water, and it changed how I see everything” - Josh Collins
Links From The Episode
- Keep up with Josh Collins and his paddle boarding voyages.
- Learn more about veteran suicide prevention and spread the word.
- Check out the 14′ Traveller Paddle Board for yourself.
- The Corpus Christi Windsurfing Association gives you the details on upcoming events.
- The Task Force Dagger Foundation supports US Special Operations and their families.
How much greater understanding I now have of my limitations and boundaries with TBI, and just how to continue to make improvements in my cognitive function. I found magic out there on the water, and it changed how I see everything. - Josh Collins
Corey and Sean welcome Josh Collins to the podcast via some top notch technology to discuss one of the largest projects they’ve ever done, Operation Phoenix.
00:01:50 Getting Back In the Saddle After Serving
Josh Collins led an extensive career in the Army, mainly focused on Special Forces Operations, when he found himself retiring in 2008 after suffering a number of traumatic brain injuries while serving his country. While recovering in a VA hospital, Josh learned about paddle boarding as recreational therapy. Having never been on a paddle board before and struggling with his recovery for many years after, he decided it was time to get back in the saddle of life by doing something big.
“Something extreme got me here and I’ve gotta do something extreme to get me out of this.” - Josh Collins
So in 2015, he set out on a mission to paddle halfway across the country from Texas to New York City.
00:04:15 Traumatic Brain Injuries - A Mission Bigger Than Josh
Josh called several different paddle board companies with his plan but didn’t make any headway until he contacted BOTE. After hearing the pitch from BOTE’s former marketing coordinator, Corey thought Josh just might be crazy enough to do this, so he reached out to Josh to better understand his mission. And that’s when it came full circle.
Josh explains the complex web that is traumatic brain injury and brain disease. About the difficulty you face with your own emotions and self control, trying to moderate your anger, sadness, and grief. And how it’s all compounded when it stays bottled up inside. He knew he had to find some form of therapy other than medication, and with the startling statistics on veteran suicides and his own personal military friends ‘passing quietly’ at night, he knew this mission was bigger than himself.
Josh wanted to raise awareness for traumatic brain injuries, and to do that, he’d have to do something big, something dangerous, something on a national level.
00:09:00 We’ll Call It Operation Phoenix
It only made sense to name the mission Operation Phoenix, as Josh was about to rise from the ashes and voyage halfway across the country. Having never done something like this before, Corey and Josh start making a training plan. But how do you train for something that’s never been done? Going in blind, they try to wrap their heads around the logistics of such a feat, starting with designing a specialty 14′ Traveller SUP board.
“The X factor, for this, is the ocean. Because she has a vote. And it’s very much, in the military, like the enemy. You can have the perfect plan. Everything is going to come together. You got the perfect team. But guess what? The enemy gets a vote. And the plan changes at the first shot. That first shot of gunfire… and everything changes. That’s what happened to me, day one, leaving Corpus Christi.” - Josh Collins
00:12:25 The Enemy Gets A Vote
No matter how prepared Josh thought he was when he started this mission, it was impossible to account for external interference. He admits he got off to a windy start, not realizing Corpus Christi is the home to many prominent windsurfing competitions. Paddling with a board loaded down with 80 lbs of gear and wind smacking him in the face, he only made it 15 miles on day one.
The goal was to go 30.
For the next three days, Josh experiences the same conditions, paddling only a mile every hour, and it would have continued that way had the Coast Guard not pulled him off the water due to a small craft advisory.
It was an ominous start, with 2,600 more miles to go.
00:17:30 Josh’s On-Land Travel Buddy - His Wife
Josh’s wife, Tanya, was there to support him from land. Planning to follow him around the coastline and camp along the way, she was in for a big surprise when she realized the Gulf has incredibly long stretches of land where you simply can’t get to the water.
In search of a new plan, she turns to the Task Force Dagger Foundation, who hooked her up with a 36′ RV so she can follow Josh for the next five months. Josh was grateful for the bed.
00:21:15 A Moving Target in New York City
Everyone knew ending in New York City was going to be epic, but trying to determine when Josh was going to end up there, or if he was even going to make it, was a moving target for the BOTE team. When he gets the cue that Josh is likely two weeks out, Corey scrambles to get everything in order, including paddling the last leg from New Jersey to the Statue of Liberty.
After locating paddle boards from a dealer up north, getting a film crew together, bringing on support from countless first responders, and booking travel for Corey and DarkRoom Director, Pete Buzzelli, the team is as prepared as they can be for one of the most surreal moments of their lives.
00:26:15 A Moment That Drops You To Your Knees… In A Good Way
After some last minute logistical hiccups, like realizing they needed a boat to actually take them out to meet up with Josh, Corey, Pete, and a slew of supporters cheer Josh on as he crosses his finish line.
The group concurs it’s one of the best paddle experiences they’ve ever had. It wasn’t just one man paddling halfway across the country, it was a mission bigger than him, and it showed when he wasn’t alone when he finished. The Fire Department, Police Department, US Coast Guard, and more were there to rally behind Josh and he completed his mission. Oh, and there were a ton of giant cannon sprayers coming from a single watercraft, creating a firework display of water. It was badass, to say the least.
“Pete was on one side, Corey was on the other side, there’s all these other paddlers. I was such on Cloud 9, in such euphoria, and all of the sudden, you guys all stopped as I paddled up to the markers (of the Statue of Liberty), and believe me the national park services are there with their rifles loaded making sure I didn’t cross the markers. So I get to the markers and I look, everybodys gone because you guys just dropped off to let me go up there by myself. And dude it was like somebody took a 2 by 4 and just took me down to the knees. It was five months of planning coming together and mission success.” - Josh Collins
00:32:25 Paddle Boarding - A Wonderful Facilitator For Friendship
What started out as a man trying to kickstart his life after a long career in the military turned into a platform to educate and raise awareness for traumatic brain injuries and brain disease. And for Corey, it opened up doors for his team to work on other military related projects and to show people paddle boarding isn’t difficult. It’s a great way to connect with people. It’s a true facilitator for friendship.
00:34:20 Connection Is The Cure
Josh couldn’t agree more. The biggest thing he learned, and he learned it in the first couple of weeks on the water, is people care. Every single day while on his mission, someone on a boat would come up and ask, “Is there anything you need today?” Which he says was almost always water, but the point is this - it got him through. And if everyone called a veteran once a month, veterans would be getting a phone call every other day, checking in on them, asking them if they needed anything.
Feeling connected, it’s that simple. Josh never knew until this trip that connection is the cure.
Time to get out and live. See ya next time!