AUGUSTA — Four weeks into retirement from the U.S. Army, former Staff Sgt. Travis Mills is keeping busy.
He’s giving motivational speeches, raising money for his eponymous foundation and for a new veterans camp in Belgrade, all while trying to be a good husband and father.
With those demands, he’s hopeful but not certain that he’ll be at Cony High School on Jan. 16, when people in central Maine will have the chance to learn more about their soon-to-be neighbor during a special screening of “Travis: A Soldier’s Story.”
The 57-minute documentary tells the story of Mills’ recovery from a catastrophic injury in Afghanistan last year that cost him both arms and both legs.
Mills, who will move to Manchester next year if all goes as planned with a house being built for his family, said he hopes the movie will show people the struggles faced by wounded veterans as well as the possibilities for a good life.
“There’s life after amputation, after an explosion,” he said. “That’s kind of what it shows, a story of resiliency — the can-do, the never give up, never quit that’s kind of my slogan.”
Mills was wounded when he dropped his pack on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan on April 10, 2012, four days before his 25th birthday. He’s one of five quadruple amputees from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Several months into Mills’ recovery, Kate Norris saw a picture of him in her Facebook news feed. He wasn’t wearing any of his prosthetics, but he had a huge smile on his face.
Norris is always on the lookout for inspiring true stories that the nonprofit organization she founded, Fotolanthropy, can turn into short films. She was moved by reading Mills’ story online and called him the next day to arrange to meet him, his wife, Kelsey, and their daughter, Chloe, who’s now 2 years, 4 months old.
“I didn’t really understand why they wanted my story,” said Mills, characteristically launching into a joke. “I failed at work. I got blown up.”
Norris and a Fotolanthropy crew flew to Fort Bragg in North Carolina in October 2012 to shoot a 10-minute film, but she was inspired to take the story further.
“When we said our goodbyes to the Millses, I think I knew in my heart this was extraordinary, this would be a gift for so many people to know this story,” Norris said.
A feature-length documentary was beyond Fotolanthropy’s budget, so they set up a Kickstarter crowd-funding project to rent the equipment they needed and fly the soldiers who were with Mills when he was wounded to Dallas for filming in February.
“Travis: A Soldier’s Story” includes interviews, family photographs and video and reenactments of key moments, including the explosion.
Mills said going through those reenactments was fine for him — the hardest part was removing the glued-on papier mache that mimicked bloody flesh — but trying for some of his fellow soldiers.
“It was harder on them to see it and re-enact it than it was for me,” he said. “I was like, I know the ending to this story. I’ve already seen it, and it’s fine.”
The movie premiered in August in Dallas — where Fotolanthropy is based and where Kelsey Mills’ parents live — then had several screenings in Mills’ Michigan hometown. Since then, it has been shown in Kansas, Rhode Island and at the U.S. Capitol.
Kelsey Mills spent part of her childhood in Gardiner, and relatives who live in central Maine, including some who attended Cony, organized the screening here.
“Travis: A Soldier’s Story” will be shown at 7 p.m. Jan. 16 at Cony’s Viles Auditorium. Tickets are $10 and can be bought only at travis-augusta.eventbrite.com, but those without Internet access can call Ashley Harriman at 441-3156. Ticket sales will benefit Fotolanthropy and the Travis Mills Foundation.
Mills set up the foundation to provide investment funds to children of armed forces personnel killed in action and to support the National Veterans Family Camp, an adaptive camp for disabled veterans at Camp Kennebec in Belgrade.
Bread of Life Executive Director Dean Lachance, who’s spearheading development of the camp, will be at the screening seeking donations. He said he wants to raise $5 million to buy the camp, renovate it to be fully accessible and provide initial operating funds, plus an additional $15 million to endow the camp.
If he’s not able to attend the screening at Cony, Mills will at least appear via Skype. He said the film is not too gory for children under 10, but he added a warning.
“Bring your tissues,” he said. “I got yelled at. One elderly lady yelled at me because we didn’t say to bring Kleenex. She said she sobbed all over her nice blouse.”