AUGUSTA — Last Memorial Day, Staff Sgt. Travis Mills watched the start of the first Miles for Mills race on a smartphone from a military rehabilitation center in Maryland.
Less than two months had passed since he’d lost all four limbs in an explosion in Afghanistan, and he couldn’t imagine being able to walk part of his namesake race at Cony High School, as he did Monday morning.
“A year ago this time I was just getting out of a ketamine coma,” he said. “I didn’t know what the heck had happened to me, didn’t know where I was or what I was going to do with my life. Now I have arms and legs, and I’m doing quite a bit.”
In addition to spending time with his wife, central Maine native Kelsey Buck Mills, and their 20-month-old daughter, Chloe, Mills has found a new purpose, inspired by his experience learning to snowboard again.
“I never felt so free, I guess, or so independent as I did when I was snowboarding up in Breckinridge, Colorado, going down the mountain,” he said.
Mills, 26, was on his third tour of duty when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in April 2012. He is one of only a handful of quadruple amputees to survive from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Mills’ goal is to help other wounded warriors feel confident and readjust to civilian life through similar experience.
While the first Miles for Mills 5K walk and run was organized to raise money for Mills and his family, Monday’s race was a fundraiser for the Travis Mills Project, which will create an adaptive recreation center for veterans and their families at Camp Kennebec in Belgrade.
More than 200 runners participated in Monday’s event, and more than 100 other people volunteered or cheered them on. Mills did not have his running legs, but he did walk part of the race course.
Work on the center is under way and the National Veterans Recreation Center should be able to host four or five families in late August, said Dean Lachance, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries. His organization is partnering with Crista and Joel Lavenson, the owners of Camp Kennebec.
“There’s no place in the country where it’s fully accessible, where they can get access to the water and the land and be there on vacation or to have respite, to have retreat,” Lachance said.
Wheelchair ramps must be added to several cabins and all the major buildings at the camp, and the cabin bathrooms are being refitted with roll-in showers and other features to be fully accessible for people with disabilities.
Boardwalks will be built to connect buildings over the uneven ground. The buildings also need heating and air-conditioning because amputees have difficulty regulating their body temperature.
The camp also needs to buy adaptive equipment that will allow veterans with disabilities to participate in activities such as archery, golf, tennis and fishing.
One of the camp’s greatest needs is for a tram that can take veterans to and from the lakefront, Lachance said. It will cost $75,000 to $100,000 to renovate five cabins this year, plus more for additional cabins next year.
The project’s leaders also want to raise enough money to endow a scholarship fund to pay for families to attend the camp.
Lachance said Mills will always have access to the camp, and soon he won’t be far away.
Mills is originally from Michigan and was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, but he said Monday that he and his wife almost certainly will be moving to Maine and are looking for land to build a home. The Tunnels to Towers Foundation has offered to build the family a custom, fully accessible “smart” home.
Mills said he loves Maine’s mountains, woods, lakes and coast and expects other veterans will, too.
Several participants in Monday’s race wore jerseys with the eagle logo of Team Red, White & Blue, an organization working to reconnect veterans to their communities through social and physical activities. Gardiner resident Laura Allen, who leads the local chapter, said she’s on the board of the Travis Mills Project and sees immense value in its goal.
“It’s a chance for them to kind of recapture the kind of strength and freedom and confidence that they had prior to their injury, and to just let them have some time to have fun with their famlies,” she said.
The Miles for Mills race was one of several events in the region on Monday to honor veterans and military personnel who died in the service.
American Legion posts and other organizations held parades in Gardiner, Hallowell, Litchfield, Monmouth, Richmond, Sidney, Vassalboro and Winthrop.
Local veterans organizations, the Maine National Guard and VA Maine Healthcare System staff took part in wreath-laying ceremonies at both Togus cemeteries.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645