MANCHESTER — Chloe Mills scooted out the back door and made a beeline for the playground.
“I’m going to play with my shoes off,” the pigtailed 3-year-old told her mother. Then, with a skip, she briefly considered the swing before deciding to tackle the climbing wall. Moments later, her young cousins sprinted to answer her call to come and join the fun.
Chloe’s parents, Travis and Kelsey Mills, on Wednesday took possession of a 4,000-square-foot house replete with nearly every conceivable amenity, many of which can be run by the touch of a computer screen, but this playground is one of their favorite parts.
“Thanks for bringing my wife and daughter home,” Mills, a quadruple amputee following combat injuries suffered during his third tour in Afghanistan, told a gathering of about 100 builders, veterans and politicians who turned out for the ceremony to dedicate the home off Pond Road.
The smart home, outfitted with technology designed to make Mills as independent as possible, was a gift from a foundation established by actor Gary Sinise and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named in honor of a New York City firefighter who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We hope this house will give you the independence most of us take for granted every day,” said Chris Kuban of the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Mills, 27, a retired Army staff sergeant and one of only five quadruple amputees from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2012.
Speakers from various organizations involved in the construction lauded Mills for his military service and his effort to bounce back from the devastating injuries.
“You’re one of the most remarkable individuals I’ve ever met,” said Jim Shubert of Missouri-based Shubert Design, which donated the furniture for the home. “Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice. Welcome home.”
John Hodge, director of operations for Tunnel to Towers, recalled Mills determination and recited quotes the soldier gave after his injury and as he learned to use prosthetic limbs.
“I’m not wounded anymore,” Hodge recalled Mills saying. “God bless you for that attitude.”
When it was his turn to speak, Mills scanned the audience looking for the familiar faces of the tradesmen who helped build his house and called them by name as he thanked them.
“Where’s Mikey the painter?” Mills asked. “He’s literally touched every part of my house. Tom. Larry. Their families are part of my family now. You guys made it all possible.”
Mills choked with emotion several times as he recounted meeting and marrying Kelsey — she was his medic’s sister — and the day they discovered they were going to have a baby.
“If I tear up, just cheer so I can get through it,” Mills said.
Back then, they bought a house in North Carolina.
“That was my little piece of heaven,” Mills said. “My little three-quarter-acre plot.”
Chloe Mills never got a chance to sleep in her bedroom before her father was wounded. Mills said he realized without family or connections in the area they would not be able to keep the home.
Kuban recalled Kelsey Mills’ interview on Fox News conducted just days after her husband was injured.
“You could tell the uncertainty in her voice,” Kuban said. “You could tell she was confused about what would happen next.”
Kelsey Mills’ father, Craig Buck, quit his job and moved to Maryland to help take care of Chloe as Kelsey cared for her husband at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“You do anything for your kids,” Buck said.
Buck and his son-in-law became good friends during that year. He now travels with Mills on speaking engagements to publicize a documentary film about his life and his foundation to benefit wounded veterans and their families.
“I’m kind of like the pit crew when we go on the road,” Buck said.
Buck and his wife, Tammy Buck, will live on the property in an apartment above the barn to help their daughter and son-in-law take care of things.
“I just bought a plow truck and a snow blower and a couple of good shovels,” Buck said, chuckling. “There’s six acres of lawn.”
While Mills was in the hospital, representatives of the Gary Sinise Foundation told Mills they wanted to build him a house.
“I was like, ‘This must be the drugs,'” Mills recalled.
Mills, a Michigan native, let Kelsey, a Gardiner High School graduate, decide where they would live. She chose her home state where there are numerous family and friends for support.
Gov. Paul LePage, who attended with his wife, Ann LePage, said Mills’ courage and sacrifice “means so much to our nation, our great state and certainly to Ann and me. I’m so proud he chose Maine to establish his family.”
Mills arrived at the ceremony escorted by a Kennebec County Sheriff’s cruiser and a number of Patriot Guard motorcycles. Chloe, riding in her parents’ pickup truck, stuck her head out the moon roof as they drove up the long driveway lined on both sides with miniature American flags. An enormous flag visible from Pond Road partially obscured the guests’ view of the house as they faced the stage. When the speeches were over, Chloe led her parents in a chant to “Move that flag!” Behind it was a gorgeous two-story house.
The home’s systems, such as heating and cooling, lighting, security and even entertainment, are all controlled from anywhere in the house through an iPad tablet. Kelsey Mills knows how to use it, Travis Mills said, but he is still learning.
“The house is phenomenal,” he said.
The house is equipped with an elevator that allows Travis Mills easy access to his “man cave” in the basement and to the second-floor bedrooms. Mills said he is looking forward to reading to Chloe before bedtime, a luxury he has not enjoyed until now because his daughter’s room has been on the second floor.
“It’s just exciting stuff,” he said.
Kelsey Mills said the journey that started with such uncertainty immediately after her husband was injured has come full circle.
“It means we have stability and a place to call home,” she said.
Mills, reflecting on the soldiers who did not make it home from war and others who came back and continue to struggle with injuries suffered in combat, said when he was first injured all he wanted to do was talk to Kelsey and hold his daughter one more time. Now, through rehabilitation, he is able to drive and be self-sufficient.
“This is the final step in my rehabilitation,” Mills said. “The last bit of independence and freedom is owning a home.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642