WASHINGTON — “People call me a hero, but I’m not sure which parts make me a hero. I just had a normal day at work that turned ugly.”
— Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills in the trailer for “Travis: A Soldier’s Story,”
a documentary about his life.
Hold that thought a few minutes.
But first, some historical perspective.
Mills’ life began in Michigan.
“I played a lot of sports. I liked football, basketball and baseball. I was always the captain of the teams. I would grab them, throw them down and tell them I didn’t like them running on me. I ran a lot of touchdowns.”
If that sounds like conceit, forget it.
Try another “c” word: confidence.
He stood 6 foot 2 inches tall and weighed 225 pounds when he graduated Vassar Michigan, High School and headed off to college where he would continue his athletic pursuits.
But he quickly found college wasn’t for him.
“I went to college and while I was in college I didn’t like being in debt and I decided to do something different,” Mills said as he addressed those in attendance at the Third Annual Truckload Carriers Wreaths Across America Charitable Gala here September 22. “The Army recruiter was there. After football season ended I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself so I talked to the recruiter and joined the military.”
In 2007, as a member of the 82nd Airborne he found himself in Afghanistan for the first of what would be three deployments there.
During the first, he met his wife Kelsey, first on cyberspace (he was 20, she 18) and later in person on a hastily-arranged trip to Mexico, and married her first in a secret, then in a public ceremony.
By the end of his second deployment the couple had welcomed daughter Chloe to the family.
Then it was back to Afghanistan for the third time.
No sweat he thought, I’ve done this routine twice without incident.
But —as Paul Harvey once said — now the rest of the story, a story that would take Travis Mills from being just another soldier on the battlefield to being one of five living quadruple amputees to status as a true American hero who, though at first he felt as though he had nothing to live for, has dedicated his life to encouraging others to making sure combat-wounded veterans have a meaningful life and to serving the recreational and reintegration needs of themselves and their families.
“On April 10, 2012, I was walking along on patrol minding my own business and I happened to come to patrol halt,” he said. “When we stopped I sat down my 110-pound bag and as soon as it hit the ground, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off. It immediately ripped off my right arm and right leg and my left leg was tattered really bad and they had to duct tape it to my side.”
He was able to call his commanding officer to tell him he’d been blown up and that other soldiers had been wounded.”
“I told the medic to save my guys because I was willing to accept the consequences of war,” Mills said. “I had a severed artery throwing blood but my medic said, ‘Sgt. Mills, with all due respect let me do my job’ and he fixed me up.”
Or as well as you could fix up someone whose four extremities had either been blown to bits or severely damaged.
From there he was lifted aboard a helicopter, which took him to an ambulance to the hospital and finally the operating room.
“When we landed at the hospital they couldn’t believe I was still awake,” he said. “I told them ‘don’t touch me I’m fine’ and they said ‘Sgt. Mills you need to go to sleep.’”
The last thing he remembered before going to sleep was thinking he might never see is daughter again.
Let him tell the next part of the story.
“They pumped me full of sedatives and put me to sleep and I guess while they were taking my clothes off, my left leg sort of popped off and I’m a triple amputee automatically,” he said. “They call my wife and had to tell her. My brother-in-law flies from another part of Kandahar to meet me at the hospital. On April 12 they had to cut off my left hand. April 14 was the most important day of my mom’s life. I woke up for the first time. On my 25th birthday I found out I was a quadruple amputee. I went from a 6-3, 250 pound behemoth of a man to a guy who lost 110 pounds.”
Normally a talkative, open person, he became silent.
“I am sitting there not talking to my wife and everything is going horrible for me,” he said. “So finally I told Kelsey ‘take everything we have in the account, take our little girl and go. This isn’t what you signed up for … I’m not the man I used to be, I can’t open any jars, can’t pick anything up.’”
Her answer was quick and to the point.
“She said ‘no, that’s not why I married you,’ so she stayed with me.”
Then he got a visit from a fellow quadruple amputee.
“He came walking into my room and said, ‘what’s up, my name’s Todd [Nicely].’ I was so ramped up on medication I thought I was having hallucinations. He told me, ‘Hey man, everything’s fine, you’re going to get better. It’s going to be OK; you just have to be patient.’”
But telling Travis Mills to be patient is akin to telling a house cat to take a swim.
What’s more, the Nicely visit, along with getting to hold his daughter for the first time since the explosion, had motivated him to get up and get going.
“I had a fight with my doctor. I told him I was going to go to physical therapy and he said, ‘no you’re not,’ and I said, ‘yes I am.’ I called him four hours straight every 30 minutes and I went to sleep on the therapy [table] with the heating pad on my back and that’s the best day of physical therapy I ever had. Once I realized I could get better and better, I had to set my goals.”
Short-term goals included feeding himself, walking and finally competing in a 5K run.
He met all of them.
His first long-term goal was to salute his fellow troops as they got off the plane coming back from deployment.
And he did.
He wanted to be able to drive.
And he does with the help of a specially-equipped truck.
Finally, after seeing all the good work the doctors, nurses and staff were doing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he rehabbed for 19 months, he decided he wanted to start a foundation.
And he did.
Its mission is to offer vital services for combat-wounded veterans and lead the nation in direct veteran assistance, support and healing.
His foundation has been able to purchase the long-time Maine home of Elizabeth Arden of cosmetic fame.
There, Mills wants to create a fully accessible facility dedicated to serving the recreational and reintegration needs of combat-wounded veterans and their families.
The plan is for the retreat to host six to eight families of wounded veterans weekly, where they can recover, relax and enjoy a wide range of adaptive sports and activities, Mills said.
“But also, it’s not just about the retreat, it’s about bringing the family back,” Mills said. “When I went into the hospital and I had to go on these trips, I was able to take my wife because of how injured I was. But some guys weren’t allowed to take their wives and their kids.”
Now they can.
And that’s one of many reasons Travis Mills IS a hero.