BELGRADE — With rolling thunder for fanfare, Staff Sgt. Travis Mills spoke rapidly and enthusiastically of a Maine camp where wounded veterans — including quadruple amputees like him — can go fishing, boating and tubing; drive golf carts; play golf; and have fun.
For this week, that was a reality at Camp Kennebec, where five of the cabins were refitted to be fully accessible and widened gravel paths and wooden ramps made it easier to get into Salmon Lake and onto boats.
Mills, wounded April 10, 2012, in Afghanistan in an explosion that took parts of both legs and arms, was joined by his family and four other veterans also being treated at Walter Reed Medical Center and their families as well as two Maine veterans, Brendan Higgins, of Readfield, and Jeremy Gilley, of Palermo.
“From what I understand, they’re having a heck of a time,” Mills said. “I want to show them the beauty of Maine all year round.”
He talked about his walk into the water on his “short legs” without his prosthetic arms, his 1 1/2-year-old daughter following right behind, then of tubing across the water.
He spoke, too, of waking up in a hospital, learning he had lost his limbs, meeting another quadruple amputee who helped him and then deciding on his goal of helping other amputees.
This is Founders Week at the National Veterans Family Center, which is part of the Travis Mills Project.
It evolved from Mills sharing his idea for a recreation center for veterans and their families with Dean Lachance, executive director of the Augusta-based Bread of Life Ministries.
That conversation occurred nine months ago.
Now Mills has bought property in Manchester and plans to move with his family to Maine, working full time on the project, which he hopes will become a year-round recreational refuge for veterans and their families.
Wednesday night was steak-and-lobster night at the camp, and Mills and the other veterans were joined by Gov. Paul LePage and first lady Ann LePage.
Ann LePage has signed on as a “first lady of Camp Kennebec,” and she engaged in an easy, teasing repartee with Mills as he prepared for an interview with a number of newspeople in an wooden building designated as the media center.
The thunder, lightning and rain proved no barriers for the men, and Mills sported a bright white watch strapped to one wrist so he could try to keep everything on schedule.
Governors from the home states of other veterans had sent state flags to the camp. “I’ll be honest,” Ann LePage said. “The flags are nice, but I want their money.”
She referred to the fundraising campaign under way now.
The immediate goal is to raise $25,000 to finish funding the $95,000 cost of the remodeling done so far and the week’s camping and other activities.
Lachance has more long-range goals as well: raising $5 million in seed money to buy the camp itself and make all the cabins, other buildings and activities handicapped-accessible, as well as offering free camping for veterans and their families for five or six years. Finally, the goal also is to raise $15 million in an endowment to keep it going.
More information on the camp and its mission and fundraising can be found at www.veteransfamilycamp.com.
For Sgt. William Andrew “Drew” Mullee, from northeast Ohio, the camp was already a winner.
“Any time you’re out of Washington, D.C., you’re probably in a good place,” Mullee said. He talked about leaving Walter Reed for the week and being able to get outdoors with his wife and 11-month-old son, Easton. “They’re loving it,” he said
“Getting out of the hospital and driving a golf cart or an ATV, and you’re on a boat, you feel normal,” he said.
An Army sergeant, Mullee lost a leg May 12, 2012, in southern Afghanistan while on a walking patrol locating roadside bombs. One exploded as he backed away from it.
“I told myself, ‘Get up. Walk it off. You’ll be all right,” Mullee said. He realized the extent of his injury once he was in a hospital in Germany.
“One side of the sheet went only halfway down.”
While he said he keeps working hard on rehabilitation, he admires both Mills and Taylor Morris.
Morris, a Navy petty officer second class who is a quadruple amputee like Mills, said Mills kept talking about the plan for a accessible camp in Maine where the amputees would find it easy to get around.
“Initially I didn’t believe him,” Morris said.
After a few days of fishing and boating and tubing and driving golf caps and ATVs and practicing archery, he’s a believer. “For other vets, it can give them some family time and they can get back into outdoor activities,” Morris said.
Morris, who is from Iowa, lost his limbs on a routine reconnaissance patrol at an abandoned camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan when a roadside exploded.
“I was conscious the whole time,” he said, describing being medivaced out. Unlike Mills, he knew the extent of his injuries immediately. “I pretty much remember everything.”
Morris said he hopes many other veterans get a chance to see the camp.
Betty Adams — 621-5631