When Travis Mills woke up in a tent in the rugged Afghanistan province of Kandahar on the morning of April 10, 2012, he knew he probably would be fighting the Taliban that day.
It was the third and by far the most difficult deployment the 24-year-old Army staff sergeant had faced, part of the United States’ ongoing 12-year war in the country.
What Mills didn’t know was that it was his last day as an able-bodied man. He didn’t know it was the last day he would walk across the ground on his own two feet.
He didn’t know it was the day that would change his life forever. He would suffer near-mortal wounds, making him one of only five quadriplegic veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
When Mills was a private, his first deployment as part of the personal security detachment of a colonel had been “pretty awesome.”
“Hot food, showers, a gym to work out in,” he said Thursday, speaking from the sun room of the Blaine House, home of Gov. Paul LePage.
First lady Ann LePage, who has become a champion of Mills’ cause to buy a camp for veterans at Camp Kennebec, near Salmon Lake in Belgrade, sat next to him, occasionally supplying a relevant detail.
Each deployment grew more challenging, Mills said.
“Then I went out a second time, and then it was fighting, fighting, take a compound, barricade it,” Mills said. “Fight some more, take another compound, barricade it. And uh, you know, the last six months of my last deployment was like basically every day, fighting. I didn’t mind it. It was part of my job.”
On the afternoon of that fateful day nearly two years ago, Mills and his fellow soldiers received a report of an improvised explosive device in a nearby village.
In all, there are about 1,000 villages in the province, which is characterized by rocky terrain and looming mountains.
The soldiers’ relationship with the local villagers was ambivalent, he said. For the most part, they just wanted to live in peace and be left alone.
“The people in the town, they don’t care either way,” Mills said. “There, towns were people living in mud huts. You know, work all day, sun-up to sun down. They don’t want to help us out because if they help us out, they don’t want the Taliban to know.”
Part of the military’s objective in the region, Mills said, was to disrupt the supply chain of large amounts of heroin, used to fund Taliban efforts.
“Like, 80 percent of the world’s heroin goes through there, in Afghanistan,” he said. “We were disrupting that and they didn’t like us being there, the Taliban.”
It happened after he and a group of about 20 others from the 82nd Airborne Division descended on the village.
“I just set my bag down,” Mills said. “And just — my bag blew up on me. There was 13 in a row. I happened to set it down in the wrong spot.”
In the blast, Mills’ right arm and leg were blown to bits.
It also knocked him unconscious, but only for five or six seconds.
“I was awake over here on the ground. This arm and this leg disintegrated. This leg was hanging on by tissue. It was like taped to my thigh.”
His left arm, which had a tattoo of the ring that symbolized his marriage to his wife, Kelsey Mills, a Gardiner High School graduate, remained mostly intact.
Mills remained conscious as a medic began applying tourniquets to what remained of his limbs. His thoughts were not of his own safety, but of his fellow soldiers and friends.
“I said, â€˜Save my guys.’ I figured I was done. I been overseas all my life. I knew how this kind of thing worked. The medic told me to shut up.”
“I was yelling for my other two guys who were with me. They yelled back finally, about 40 seconds into it. And I said, â€˜Oh, OK,’ and I just calmed down, you know. They said I needed to slow my heart rate, so I did.”
Mills and two other seriously wounded soldiers were loaded into a helicopter.
“One of my guys was yelling like crazy,” Mills said. “He lost his right testicle.”
On the helicopter, Mills looked at one of them.
“His left eye was swollen shut. His right eye was like, it had a goo protecting it. It looked like bacon grease,” Mills said. “I winked at him and smiled and said, â€˜It’s going to be OK. Don’t worry. Hang in there.’”
Finally, the effect of the blast and the drugs knocked Mills out, before he could begin to appreciate how difficult his life would be once he woke up.
Mills was taken to a hospital in Afghanistan, where his remaining arm was removed. While drugged and in a coma, he was flown to another hospital in Germany. A major on the plane later told Mills he was talking in his sleep, asking what he needed to do to get back to active duty.
PLACE OF HEALING
Though he never returned to active duty, Mills is very active today, and he has taken on a new duty. He now dreams of a place where veterans and their families can come together in an enjoyable setting and share their stories.
His organization, the Travis Mills Foundation, is working to raise $3.5 million to buy the camp in Belgrade and convert it to the Travis Mills Project National Veterans Family Center, a place he says could play a unique role in reducing the veteran suicide rate.
A report released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last year found that, on average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day — nearly one per hour. Their suicide rate is more than double that of the population as a whole.
“For me, luckily, I don’t suffer from PTSD. I don’t suffer from the TBI,” Mills said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, two mental conditions that often plague veterans. “My head is OK. What I see doesn’t bother me.”
But many veterans do struggle with those problems, Mills said, and while he doesn’t have a medical background that would support the claim, his instinct is that the camp can help.
“I just feel it’s very helpful to be able to talk about things,” he said.
Last year, the same major who told Mills that he was talking about returning to duty while drugged came to the camp as part of a group of visiting veterans.
While there, the major opened up about his own past, about flying a marine aircraft that crashed, killing the other five men on board and injuring the major. “He had never told anybody his story,” Mills said. “I knew a little bit but, you know, we come together. It’s not a come together like hugging, crying out, holding hands. It’s come together. Everybody’s gone through the same experience. Everybody’s a veteran.”
Acquiring the camp is one of several causes being undertaken by the Travis Mills Foundation, but it is particularly important to Mills himself because the Michigan native plans to move to the area.
He and his wife will move to Manchester soon, where he is building a fully adaptive home with help from the Gary Sinise Foundation, named for the founder and actor, who is very active in veterans’ causes.
“It’s a 30-minute drive from the camp, 20 minutes on a slow day,” Mills said.
If Mills is successful in his latest mission, the camp and its activities, which include a rope course, tubing, water skiing, paddle boarding, fishing, archery and golf, will be fully handicapped-accessible.
A fully accessible camp dedicated solely to veterans would be the only one of its kind in the country, which Ann LePage said has led to it being called “Maine’s gift to the nation.”
LePage said she wasn’t sure how much money has been raised so far, but she said she and other key supporters have been gratified to learn about grass-roots efforts to drive donations toward the cause.
“Paul and I were talking about it last night and he said, â€˜Ann, do you realize Maine has 1.3 million people? If everybody gave $3, the camp would be bought,’” she said.
She said she is also hopeful that a donor with deep pockets will make a significant contribution to the cause.
“We often talk about how it would be such a great legacy,” she said. “If somebody who had the means to do that, what a legacy to leave in their name to the state of Maine.”
Mills, who has developed a friendship with LePage, said she is personally invested in the cause.
“She is not driven by any political motivation of her husband’s,” Mills said. “It’s what her thing is. I asked if I could take a picture with her and her husband and she said, â€˜He’s not part of it. He’s not what the focus is.’ And I think that just speaks volumes. She is a supporter.”
A SOLDIER’S LIFE
It may seem unusual that Mills has come out of his ordeal with such a spirit of optimism and enthusiasm for life, but those characteristics might have pulled him through in the first place.
“When you look at somebody like Travis,” LePage said, “he’s lost both of his arms, both of his legs. And he has the personality that he has. To be able to help somebody else who thinks, â€˜Wow, do I really want to live? Is it worth it?’ When you see somebody like this, it really makes you say, â€˜You think you’re having a bad day? Think again.’”
It’s that ability to imagine a better future that helped him fight for his rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md.
“When I made the decision to get better, I got my doctor and I said, â€˜Look, I’m going to work out now,’” he said.
You can’t, the doctor told him. Your stomach is still all messed up .
“I don’t think you get it,” Mills recalled saying. “I’m going to work out.”
The two started to argue.
The doctor asked, what’s the rush?
“Look behind you,” Mills told him, referring to pictures of his wife and daughter pinned to the wall. “I got a family, people to take care of. I got things to do.”
I’ll let you know, the doctor said.
“OK, fine,” said Mills. “So I called him every half hour for four hours straight and finally he said, â€˜OK, you can go.’”
It was the beginning of an intense amount of rehabilitation lasting more than a year. Through it all, Mills kept himself engaged with others in the hospital, especially incoming patients who could use his words of advice.
He remembers approaching one man who had lost both his legs in the war, who was having difficulty learning to go up a step.
“You’ve only been here six months. Don’t worry,” Mills said. “You’ll get it.”
Mills was wrong, the man told him. He had been there for two years.
“I said, â€˜What? Two years?’” Mills said. “He was afraid of falling. I showed him how to get up. You know, me, myself. No canes. You know, if you’re going to fall, you’re going to fall.”
At the request of the trainer, Mills began helping the man every day. Sometimes the trainer razzed the man.
“â€˜You are holding a quadruple amputee’s shoulder to brace yourself to get up a 4-inch step,’” Mills remembers her saying.
Over time, Mills said, the man learned to let go of his fears and climb the steps without falling.
The result of all that work has been a remarkable amount of capability and a remarkably active life.
Using prosthetic legs, he can do many things most people do, such as walk and drive.
He also does things that many people cannot, or will not, do.
Since he came out of the hospital, he has gone kayaking, canoing, snowboarding in Colorado and mountain biking down a 9,000-foot mountain on an adaptive bicycle.
“I went zooming down the mountain with my bike between my thighs,” he said. “Right down the side of the mountain.”
He has met former President George W. Bush and struck up a friendship with Sinise. He has dropped the puck on the ice to kick off an NHL hockey game, appeared on television and acted in a documentary about his own life. He has no plans to slow down.
“I’m going skydiving at the end of the month,” he said.
Mills still has struggles, however, and he envisions dealing with obstacles related to his disability for the rest of his life as he settles down in the local community.
Going up flights of stairs is difficult. He can mostly shower himself but he needs his wife to apply his shampoo. Right now, he can’t get his legs down onto the ground when he wakes up in the morning, a problem he thinks he can solve with a little more work.
Then there are the problems that will come from outside, from a community that isn’t used to seeing someone with such a severe disability.
“There’s things my daughter and I are going to experience and go through,” he said. “The kids at school are going to make fun of her: â€˜Your dad’s got no arms and legs.’ You know. She’s going to have to deal with that, which she wouldn’t have had to deal with; but I’m going to be there for her.”
Mills said being a father to his daughter keeps him motivated through some of the most difficult times.
“I’m her biggest fan,” he said. “You just keep going.”